Automate Vertical Logistics to Create Warfighting Capacity: Part II

Lieutenant Ben Foster, U.S. Navy

First, the manned version deployed on a Navy supply ship in 1996 as a proof of concept for use of contract civilian helicopters to support the vertical replenishment capability. The K-MAX is equipped with a blade fold system, fits in the hangar of the necessary ships, received shipboard approvals, and had a very successful track record on its deployment. The aircraft required less than two maintenance man-hours per flight hour while deployed, with less than five percent of that maintenance occurring unscheduled. 1

Second, the K-MAX already has served as an autonomous logistics platform for the Marine Corps in Afghanistan. A significant amount of the unmanned systems work has been completed and tested by Navy authorities as a result. The Marines’ maintenance experience with the unmanned helicopter almost exactly matched the Navy’s experience with the manned version more than ten years ealier. 2 That kind of reliability will allow the use of a single K-MAX paired with an MH-60S without significant risk that the K-MAX won’t be available when needed.

The Navy can bridge these two programs to create an ability to perform autonomous vertical replenishment at sea using the K-MAX system. The critical enabling element will be a sensor system that allows the air vehicle to sense the ship environment and move back and forth between the delivery ship and the receiving ships without requiring guidance by an operator.

A very promising possibility for that capability would be to use shortwave infrared (SWIR) sensors on the aircraft. SWIR-based systems can see through nearly any weather both day and night, detect objects and features, and readily identify objects in water. Additionally, SWIR-band light-emitting diode (LED) and laser systems do not require personnel to wear any special eye protection, providing the perfect guidance source to cue the air vehicle into position above ships moving at sea, whether or not they are in connected replenishment. 3

For less than a few hundred dollars, a basic cuing device could be made from battery-powered SWIR-band LEDs including the necessary batteries and circuitry, some hardened plexiglass, and simple hiking carabiners to attach to ship fastening points. This would allow the K-MAX system to provide vertical replenishment to ships across the fleet without requiring any expensive modifications to the ships themselves.

The Navy’s internal research-and-development entities would be perfectly suited to develop the sensors and cueing systems for shipboard operation. This would keep these developments government owned and facilitate their use in future projects using alternate air vehicles.

No other option has been through Naval Air Systems Command approval or implemented the unmanned flight system and proven it through many milestones with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan. 4 The Navy can deploy it rapidly to generate lessons learned. Perhaps most important, if problems occur, the K-MAX is an optionally manned system; the pilots deployed can take over and fly the aircraft in a manned configuration to make sure the fleet’s needs are met. 5

Proposed Concept of Employment

By outfitting Navy supply ships with one K-MAX and one MH-60S, the K-MAX can be the primary vehicle for resupply operations. The MH-60S would provide passenger movement support while focusing on the primary mission of surface warfare to defend supply ships and resupply operations. Equipping the MH-60S with better weapon mounts would make combining those missions possible.

Use of an unmanned system would open opportunities for new employment methods. Historically, performing vertical replenishment operations during periods of darkness has proven challenging because of the lack of visual cues available to pilots. This would not be a concern for a sensor-based automated system that is not susceptible to vertigo or other issues experienced by human pilots. By shifting most vertical replenishment operations to times of the night when the air wing is not operating, a strike group can maximize its operational tempo.

LED- and laser-based guidance cues for the air vehicle would allow vertical replenishment operations to take place with normal distance between ships, reducing the complexity and number of people required compared to connected replenishment operations. Such a system also would allow the vertical replenishment to take place without radio communications when trying to avoid potential detection by adversaries.

The K-MAX specifically can be equipped with a four-load carousel, allowing it to make deliveries to multiple destinations without returning to the supply ship. 6 This is valuable efficiency, and could enable ships in a strike or surface action group to maintain tactically sound separation without negatively impacting their resupply.

A system like K-MAX would allow the Navy explore new logistical models tailored to support a potential peer-level combat operation, keeping supply ships farther back from potential threats and flying supplies forward to surface combatants. The system can reduce counter-detection risks by employing preplanned delivery points based on dates and times, where ships can sail to at the specified time to receive resupply, all without any potentially compromising transmissions.

The vehicle can be given different flight profiles based on commander’s intent for risk. It has different ranges with and without a load, and this leads to three basic possible profiles. The “low risk” would have the vehicle transit to the designated supply box, loiter until it burns down to the fuel it needs to get back to its host ship, and then transit back. In a “medium risk” profile it can loiter until it reaches the fuel required to transit back without a load, drop its cargo into the ocean, and transit home. In the “high risk” profile it can loiter until it runs out of fuel and scuttles itself maximizing its on-station time, but risking the loss of the air vehicle. This allows a much wider employment envelope for commanders to take advantage of than is currently available with manned systems.

The Time Is Now

The Helicopter Sea Combat community is perfectly suited to bring such a capability to the fleet rapidly, given that HSC expeditionary squadrons already operate the MQ-8B unmanned system. The HSC community has leaned forward to integrate its manned and unmanned platforms and possesses the expertise to make a program like this a success. No other naval aviation community can say the same.

Four K-MAX air vehicles cost about the same as one MH-60S, and would enable the Navy to free up MH-60 Sierras for combat. Combine that procurement cost advantage with better use of training resources, improved warfighting mission readiness, operating costs half those of the MH-60S, and the opportunity to create an autonomous logistics grid, and the question is—how can the Navy afford to wait? 7

1. K-MAX Post Deployment Report . Report. Kaman Aerospace, 1997.

2. “Marines find first deployed cargo unmanned aerial system ‘reliable.’” NAVAIR News. July 23, 2012. .

3. “Why SWIR? What Is The Value of Shortwave Infrared?” .

4. “The Evolution of the K-MAX Cargo UAS Technology,” Lockheed Martin. .

5. The K-MAX has a reputation for being very easy to learn and fly. The already qualified MH-60S aircraft commanders on the detachment could be trained to fly the K-MAX in its manned mode in very little time. This would allow things like fly-on/fly-off evolutions to be conducted without the complications normally encountered with operating unmanned aircraft in national airspace systems.

6. Lockheed Martin,  K-MAX Unmanned Aircraft System . (Washington: 2010). .

7. Pope, Stephen, “Kaman Restarting K-MAX K-1200 Production,” Flying 11 June 2015. .


Lieutenant Foster is a Seahawk weapons and tactics instructor at the Helicopter Sea Combat Weapons School Pacific. In 2013, he deployed as a member of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 6 on board the USS Nimitz (CVN-68). He is a graduate of Oberlin College.

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