TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 4 prepared the RQ-7B Shadow Unmanned Aircraft System for its final flight during Exercise Steel Knight in Twentynine Palms, California, Dec. 11, 2017.
Steel Knight is an annual exercise led by 1st Marine Division that combines air and ground assets to complete a wide range of military operations focusing on ground fires, maneuver warfare tactics, and command and control capabilities.
“The flight was our last of the evolution for Steel Knight and also our last Shadow flight in the Marine Corps,” said Capt. Shanna Ream, an operations officer for VMU-4, Marine Aircraft Group 41, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, Marine Forces Reserve. “We have been flying the Shadow for a very long time, it is a system that we employed to Iraq and Afghanistan. It has a lot of capabilities and it’s been in the fight for a long time.”
For over five years with the unit, the Shadow has been operated by two enlisted Marines through the use of a computer system or a remote control system.
“It’s been very reliable and it has a lot of capabilities,” Ream said. “For example, we could physically launch and recover an aircraft from one spot and then task it off and fly it out.”
Through skillful use of the Shadows capabilities, VMU-4 was able to effectively support the active duty component throughout Steel Knight. The capabilities include sustained flight times of six to nine hours, depending if the drone is the short wing or the long wing model, and flying out 25 kilometers with a speed of about 90 knots.
“For most of our missions with the Shadow, we did a lot of control of indirect fire,” Ream said. “We participated in close air support, aerial escort, and then we did expedition operations, which is where we used our remote control.”
The Shadow is an Army owned product leased by the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps is currently phasing out the Shadow and upgrading to the RQ-21A Blackjack system, which is a Marine Corps owned product.
The Blackjack will provide day and night intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance coverage in real time. It can fly up to 16 hours, is eight feet long, and will include day and night full motion video cameras, infrared markers, laser range finders, a communications relay package and automatic identification system receivers.
The Marine Corps completed its first land based operational deployment for the system in September 2014. After several test runs and operations, the Marine Corps is ready to begin training on the RQ-21A Blackjack in March 2018.
“The RQ-21A Blackjack is going to bring a lot of capabilities for us to the fight,” Ream said. “Because of its upgraded features, we will have a smaller footprint then we did with the Shadow, and we couldn’t be more excited for it.”