March 24 (UPI) -- The U.S. Marine Corps plans to have 18 MQ-9A Reaper unmanned aerial drones in the Indo-Pacific region, with six located in Hawaii, to counter threats from China.
"The developing abilities of near-peer competitors drive the need for increased naval capability distributed over a wider area," a 40-page "Unmanned Campaign Framework," released last week by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, says.
The report outlines a need to "innovate and accelerate delivery of credible and reliable unmanned systems" to work alongside the fleet's manned platforms.
"Autonomous systems provide additional warfighting capability and capacity to augment our traditional combatant force, allowing the option to take on greater operational risk while maintaining a tactical and strategic advantage," the report said.
The Marines currently operate two MQ-9A drones, turboprop aerial vehicles with wingspans of 66 feet and a maximum weight of 10,500 pounds.
They are significantly larger than the RQ-21 Blackjack drones currently in use by Hawaii-based Marines, which have wingspans of 20 feet and weigh 460 pounds.
The call for drones, which can carry missiles, was explained in testimony on March 18 before the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee by Lt. Gen. Eric M. Smith, commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command.
"We will procure 16 more for a total of 18," said Lt. Gen. Eric M. Smith, commanding general, Marine Corps Combat Development Command, testifying March 18 before the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. "That's three squadrons of six [each]."
The eventual arrival of six MQ-9As, reported Wednesday by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, is only one of the changes coming to Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
Officials recently announced that the entire Marine Corps fleet of helicopters in Hawaii will be stationed elsewhere, in favor of a squadron of KC-130 cargo and refueling planes.
The helicopter divestment began on March 15, with the first squadron of CH-53E helicopters transported from the islands.
The framework report includes plans to incentivize rapid development and testing of unmanned systems and advance manned-unmanned teaming effects across naval and joint operations.
"The Navy and Marine Corps unmanned campaign plan serves as a roadmap for how we will realize a future where unmanned systems serve as an integral part of the Navy's warfighting team in support of distributed maritime operations," Vice Adm. Jim Kilby said last week when announcing the strategy.
"The plan lays out how we will scale tested and proven systems as well as develop the core technologies required to successfully integrate unmanned systems into the fleet," Kilby said.