Half the US forces in Afghanistan may be coming home, but K-MAX, the little unmanned helicopter, will stay until the end. A pair of the remote-controlled cargo choppers arrived in Afghanistan in late 2011 for what was billed as a short-term experiment, but the Marines liked it so much that the trial deployment was repeatedly extended, and now the military has confirmed it will keep them on “indefinitely.” (The extension was first reported yesterday by Reuters). Three love letters to the remote-controlled cargo chopper from military officers, obtained exclusively by Breaking Defense, show why.
Technologically, K-MAX is just plain neat. It’s a small one-man chopper built by Kaman Aerospace Corp. – originally for logging operations, where it airlifted tree trunks out of tight areas . It was converted to a remotely piloted vehicle by Lockheed Martin. Tactically, K-MAX allows delivery of supplies to forward outposts by air, without risking human pilots or, worse yet, sending ground convoys through the gauntlet of Taliban ambushes and roadside bombs.
“What stood out most in my mind … was the permanent scorch marks burnt into the earth up and down ‘ambush alley,’” recalled Marine Corps Maj. Kyle O’Connor, who served in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2011. So many improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had gone off in one narrow mountain pass, an unavoidable chokepoint for US supply convoys, that “that stretch of road continually had scars marking where explosions had scorched the earth,” O’Connor wrote in a letter endorsing the K-MAX for the prestigious Collier Trophy. “Those memories,” he went on, “are what drove me to be part of a program meant to save lives by limiting the amount of exposure our ground convoys had to danger”: the unmanned K-MAX, whose first six-month deployment had O’Connor in command. Keep reading →