The RQ-21 Blackjack drone, a small unmanned system originally designed for the Navy, is exactly as expeditionary as its trailer-launcher and skyhook recovery system let it be. Because it doesn’t need additional fixed infrastructure (think: runways), the Blackjack is a useful platform for real-time information, launched by Marines on land or on ships. On April 9, Utah’s IMSAR LLC announced it has configured its NSP-5 standard sensor payload as a possible mission kit for the Blackjack drone.
The new radar payload lets the drone create synthetic-aperture radar imagery, observe and note changes in the area it is surveilling, and also track moving targets on the ground. Marines watching from a control station can then take that processed information and send it out to units in the field, giving them useful real-time information for operations. Synthetic aperture radar, or SAR, is particularly appealing to Marines in this case because it can collect imagery at night or during inclement weather.
More capability for the Blackjack drone is likely a welcome development, as Marines in 2018 found they were flying the RQ-21s more than three times as much as expected in operations in Iraq and Syria.
The new radar is part of a program dubbed “Split Aces,” which doubles-down on the operational needs of the existing high-tempo missions. According to a Marine Corps fact sheet, the program was expected to begin procurement and delivery this spring.
Everywhere the United States fights or backs others with air support, drones can provide detailed information about the battlefield, look out for new threats, and guide long-range weapons with more accuracy. Staying ahead of adversaries in the field can be a moving target, so it helps to have a technical solution. Or at least, a solution to technicals. For Blackjack, it’s hardly a gamble.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.