In January 1984, the 10th Marine Artillery Regiment’s Target Acquisition Battery Detachment Alpha secretly traveled to Israel to learn the operation and maintenance of the Mastiff Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Having gained real-world experience operating the Mastiff UAV alongside their Israeli counterparts, these Marines returned to the United States and, on 22 August 1984, the detachment was transferred to Headquarters Battalion, 2d Marine Division and was re-designated as 1st Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) Platoon. 1st RPV Platoon successfully employed the Mastiff UAV in support of a number of Navy and Marine Corps exercises. In order to overcome lengthy acquisition periods, Secretary Lehman designated the RQ-2 Pioneer an “interim” system, intended to fill the gap until a permanent solution could be achieved. This strategy enabled 1st RPV Platoon, later re-designated as 2d RPV Company, to file its first operational RQ-2 UAV by September 1986. By January of the following year, 1st RPV Company was activated at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) Twentynine Palms, California, followed by 3d RPV Company in June 1987.
On 19 March 2003, the beginning of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM saw VMU-1 in direct support of 1st Marine Division. During its first combat sortie in support of the invasion, the Squadron located and reported an enemy artillery battery that was subsequently destroyed by friendly artillery. VMU-1 returned to the United States on 12 September 2003 having flown 414 sorties for 1414 flight hours, relocated on eight occasions, and convoyed more than 1000 road miles in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.
On 28 July 2004 VMU-1 returned to Iraq in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM II. Operating the Pioneer UAV from Camp Al Taqaddum, Iraq, the Squadron detected and reported armed enemy personnel on 93 occasions, enemy weapons systems on 37 occasions, enemy personnel emplacing improvised explosive devices on 14 occasions, and enemy personnel preparing to ambush friendly personnel on six occasions. VMU-1 returned to the United States on 4 March 2005 having flown 757 sorties, for 3159 flight hours, a staggering total that equated to more than a decade’s worth of peacetime flight hours flown in only seven months.
VMU-1 returned to Iraq for a third time during August 2005 in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM 4-06. This deployment saw the Watchdogs integrate the SE-15 ScanEagle UAV System with the venerable Pioneer. Along with 780 Pioneer sorties for 3215 flight hours, the Squadron returned to the United States on 20 March 2006 having logged 573 ScanEagle sorties for 5261 flight hours during the deployment.
Upon return from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) 5-07, the Marines of VMU-1 relocated their flight training facility from Outlying Field (OLF) Seagle, to the Strategic Expeditionary Landing Facility (SELF) at MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, California. During the three week flight phase of RQ-7B Shadow transition training, VMU-1 flew 159 Shadow UAS sorties for a total of 217.5 flight hours and qualified 29 operators and 30 maintainers, building an instructor cadre.
VMU-1 deployed to Iraq for a fifth time from September 2007 to April 2008 in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM 6-08. This deployment was the first time the Shadow was employed in combat by the United States Marine Corps. From September 2007 to April 2008, the Marines of VMU-1 flew 1480 ScanEagle UAV sorties, totaling 12,617 flight hours, and flew the Shadow UAS for 554 sorties, totaling 2741 mishap free flight hours of ISR support.
The summer of 2009 opened with planning and preparation for a combined arms operations at Camp Pendleton with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 369, 3d Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO), 3d Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment (3/24), and 1st Marine Division to assess the integration of the UAS platform. The Watchdogs sent one detachment to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma, AZ, and a second detachment to Niland, CA, in support of Weapon and Tactics Instructor (WTI) 1-10.
In March 2011, VMU-1 made history as the first Marine Corps squadron to conduct UAS flight operations in the Republic of Korea. During exercise FOAL EAGLE, the detachment conducted 13 sorties and 24.2 flight hours. In April, the Operations department sent two Air Vehicle Operators to WTI 2-11 as students and the unit supported WTI 2-11 with a detachment, conducting 27 sorties and 95.2 flight hours.
The Watchdogs deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF) 11.2/12.1 from November 2011 to March 2012. Throughout this time, the Squadron flew over 24,000 flight hours, participated in over 60 named operations, supported in excess of 10 troops-in-contact, provided battle damage assessment for more than 30 kinetic strikes, provided overwatch for over 15 Coalition medical evacuations, and preemptively detected at least 10 improvised explosive devices (IED) before the enemy could employ them against Coalition forces. In February, the Watchdogs oversaw the creation, installation, and operation of two Joint Range Extension (JRE) servers and other software applications. VMU-1 introduced the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) concept during October while supporting WTI 1-13. The concept utilized Multi-Function Vans (able to interface with other TOCs) to cleanly and efficiently replace the cumbersome Command Operations Center tents throughout the fleet. December marked another historic occasion for the Marine Corps, following the formal designation of Primary Military Occupational Specialty 7315 (Unmanned Aerial Systems Officer), the Watchdogs sent their first two UAS Officers to the United States Air Force Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) School, from which they emerged as Joint-qualified UAS pilots.
In January 2013, VMU-1 participated in the Integrated Training Exercise (ITX) 1-13 simultaneously utilizing the RQ-7B, RQ-21A, and Aerosonde systems. During ITX 1-13, VMU-1 developed and employed the emerging Mission Commander suites to provide situational awareness to the Mission Commanders in the COC.
Concurrent with ITX 1-13, a detachment from VMU-1 was attached to the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), breaking new ground for the UAS community. As part of the VMM-166 (REIN) Aviation Combat Element (ACE), the detachment flew 32 sorties totaling 212.5 hours. During Exercise Sang Yong in the Republic of South Korea in April, the VMU Marines conducted the first ever UAS ship-to-shore operations in Korea. In May, a VMU-1 detachment assumed operational control of UAS providing coverage to units throughout Reserve Component (RC) South West (SW) in Afghanistan. VMU-1’s high operational tempo provided approximately 4000 hours per month of FMV with the Aerosonde system, 300 hours of SIGINT support, and 150 hours of unmanned helicopter aerial delivery support.
On 11 January 2014, VMU-1 began flight operations in support of ITX 2-14, and operational planning for ITX 3-14, WTI 2-14, Desert Scimitar 14, and Black Dart 14. VMU-1 drafted and submitted to the U.S. Congress the USMC’s report on Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Electronic Warfare (EW) and UAS Roadmap/Integration, which outlined a prospective future for potential USMC UAS platforms, to include the RQ-21A and MQ-9. During March and April, VMU-1 conducted a squadron-wide detachment to Yuma, AZ, in support of WTI 2-14. This class certified an unprecedented six UAS aircrews, matching the throughput of the last several years’ combined. In May, 55 Marines and Sailors from formed Detachment Alpha Marine Expeditionary Force (FWD) and deployed to support OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF). Following turnover with VMU-2 (FWD), VMU-1 Detachment Alpha assumed all duties and responsibilities for operating Group III UAS from Camp Leatherneck, FOB Dwyer, and COP Shukvani. The RQ-21A flew its first sortie in theatre on 15 May and on 17 May flew its first OEF combat mission. Meanwhile, the remain-behind element (RBE) supported ITX 5-14 and Black Dart 14 throughout the summer.
At the beginning of 2015, VMU-1 was officially reassigned to MAG-13 within 3d MAW. VMU-1 continued with its support of exercise Steel Knight 14, and ITX 2-15 in 2015. ITX 2-15 was the last exercise VMU-1 supported with the RQ-7B System before transitioning to the RQ-7Bv2, a new airframe compliant with Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) encryption protocols. In January and February, VMU-1 flew 114 sorties, totaling 348.4 hours in support of both Unit Level Training and ITX events. The RQ-7Bv2 airframe’s first flight was on 16 April. Throughout April and May, VMU-1 flew 19 flights totaling 42.8 hours in support of RQ-7Bv2 qualifications and ITX 3-15. VMU-1 conducted a squadron-wide deployment to MCAS Yuma to support U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s (USCBP) interdiction operations as directed by Joint Task Force North. July through September, the unit supported ITX 5-15, Fleet Week (Phoenix), and a detachment to Camp Roberts, CA, to support the 13th MEU Realistic Urban Training Exercise (RUTEX). October through December saw VMU-1’s final operational surge as a tenant unit aboard MCAGCC Twentynine Palms; the Squadron supported ITX 1-16, 11th Marine Regiment, 2d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment Combat Readiness Evaluation, and exercise Steel Knight 16.
From January to April 2016, VMU-1 supported an ITX and WTI course while completing a squadron move from MCAGCC Twentynine Palms to MCAS Yuma. In June VMU-1 marked history with the reception of its first RQ-21A Blackjack system. By July, the squadron had begun its full RQ-21A Blackjack transition. A MTT, from the Fleet Replacement Detachment (FRD) in MCAS Cherry Point, initially instructed eight operators. During August, the first RQ-21A MTT concluded, with eight qualified operators after which VMU-1 conducted the first RQ-21A Blackjack flight. In November, the squadron hosted and executed a Close Air Support Exercise (CASEX), a MAG-13 sponsored operation in direct support of VMU-1. During this exercise, VMU-1 hosted MAWTS-1 UAS Division Instructor Pilots who certified six VMU-1 PWTOs and one VMU-3 PWTO.
January 2017 began with VMU-1 graduating eight more RQ-21A qualified Marines. In February and March, the final mission of the RQ-7B was flown as VMU-1 prepared for total transition to the RQ-21A UAS. The eight students of the RQ-21A MTT graduated, continuing the turnover to the new system. At the end of March and continuing through May, VMU-1 supported WTI 2-17. In April, the Marine Makers initiative is started at VMU-1 and begins to focus on the development of small UAS. In May, three UAS officers were sent to a multinational UAV course in Israel, acquiring a global perspective and understanding about how our international partners employ UAS. In June, the 15th MEU Detachment completed its final training exercise, CERTEX, before deployment. This certified the Detachment to conduct various mission sets across the full range of military operations. Concurrently, VMU-1 sent a Detachment to Avon Park, FL to participate in TROPIC THUNDER, a Deployment for Training (DFT) Exercise. This Detachment operated as Group III UAS support advanced JTAC training at the request of Naval Special Warfare Group 2 (NSWG2). The Aviation Maintenance Department stood their first Commander Naval Air Forces (CNAF) inspection since moving the flag from Twentynine Palms, CA to MCAS Yuma, AZ. This marked the first major aviation maintenance inspection with the Squadron’s new RQ-21 UAS. Overall, the squadron received a perfect 100 percent score on the CNAF inspection. In July, the squadron’s first RQ-21A Detachment deployed with the 15th MEU. During August and September, VMU-1 provided aerial reconnaissance, close air support, and FMV to the Ground Combat Element during Exercise SUMMER FURY. The Squadron commenced support in WTI 1-18 while two VMU-1 Marines were sent to Patuxent River, Maryland to take part in the Split Aces V2.0 Mission Kit 2 evaluation on the RQ-21A. This evaluation, conducted by PMA-263 and the UAS Test Directorate (UASTD), tested the Split Aces V2.0 miniature Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and its Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI), Coherent Change Detection (CCD), Foliage Penetration (FOPEN), Ground Penetration (GPEN), and Communications Relay Package (CRP) capabilities. During October, VMU-1 participated in Operation DAWN BLITZ. This operation assisted in the development of tactics, techniques, and procedures dealing with RQ-21A integration into the MAGTF. VMU-1 safely qualified their 13th MEU Detachment personnel for Deck Landing Qualification aboard the USS Anchorage. In late October, VMU-1 stood the Commanding General’s Readiness Inspection. Twelve programs were cited as noteworthy and as having model programs. VMU-1 was also noted for superior performance compared to other units within 3d MAW. In December, VMU-1 sent two UAS Operators and one UAS Officer to the RQ-21A Training and Readiness Conference aboard Marine Corps Base (MCB) Quantico, VA, and one UAS Officer to the Electronic Warfare (EW) 18-01 Class at Randolph Air Force Base, TX. The squadron was also in support of ITX 2-18 during this time with a detachment sent to MCAGCC Twentynine Palms. The 13th MEU detachment began their planning and execution of Marine Expeditionary Unit Exercise (MEUEX) aboard MCB Camp Pendleton. Through April, VMU-1 participated in WTI course 2-18 with 149.7 flight hours across ‘Black/Blue’ lines, which included hub-and-spoke operations in the R-2301W/E training area. The training enabled the squadron to certify two Weapons & Tactics Officers (WTO). The Convoy Commanders Course in the R2301 certified 14 Convoy Commanders for the unit, who were essential during to hub-and-spoke operations during WTI, ITX and combat operations.
After creating the Officer MOS (7315) seven years ago, the aircrew was presented with “UAS Wings” for the officer and enlisted ranks on 23 May 2018. In July and August, the squadron sent 34 Marines to MCAGCC Twenty-Nine Palms to support ITX 5-18 with 83.6 unmanned flight hours. In October, VMU-1 completed support of WTI 1-19 with spoke site operations to display the squadron’s capacity for further expeditionary measures while providing the MAWTS-1 UAS section, platform currency. One Marine from the VMU-1 graduated from the course. Upon exercise completion, aircrew were designated for the upcoming 11TH MEU deployment. Group 5 tasking continued to increase support to Task Force eventually surging to 24 hour operations.
Recognizing this as a challenge to future operations, and while still harmonizing RQ-21A tasks, the command at VMU-1 set out to distinguish MQ-9A operations as an official program of record that would generate its own MOS (7318) for Marine MQ-9A pilots. In late January 2020, VMU-1 hosted the MQ-9A Training and Readiness (T&R) Manual working group. This T&R manual set conditions for VMU-1 training toward Mission Skills Proficient (MSP) aircrew, Basic Instructor Pilot (BIP) and Weapons Training Officer (WTO) qualifications, ultimately working toward MSP crews to support government owned and government operated operations and reaching Initial Operational Capability (IOC).
January 11, 2020 to February 24, 2020 the Watchdogs supported RQ-21A flight operations at the Integrated Training Exercise (ITX) 1-20 in support of 5th Marine Regiment. VMU-1 medical team supported Service Level Training Exercise 2-20, accomplishing 17 medical duty shifts, multiple mass casualty exercises, and medical support to over 100 RQ-21A flight hours. On 23 March 2020, the first Marine Pilot and Sensor Operators flew the MQ-9A during an overseas combat sortie in support of Marines, while piloting the aircraft from MCAS Yuma, AZ. By late June, the fourth rotation of Marines left VMU-1 and returned to their parent units marking the end of mission support to TFSW. In this time period VMU-1 collected a total of 8,608.1 MQ-9A flight hours, 598 sorties, and 281 kinetic engagements, demonstrating the capabilities that the MQ-9A aircraft can provide in direct support of Marines. As TFSW closed, VMU-1 Marines simultaneously began preparation for their deployment to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 164 (VMM-164) while flying the RQ-21A.
Following WTI Course 2-21, VMU-1 began the arduous process of RQ-21A divestment in preparation for the unit’s transition to initial MQ-9A operational capability. The Watchdogs continued progressing toward achieving the Commandant’s vision of a Group 5 squadron by re-training and re-organizing the remainder of squadron personnel in the MQ-9A “Reaper” platform. During this time the unit was executing operational and maintenance actions to facilitate the transfer of these assets into the Naval Aviation Enterprise. By October of 2021, VMU-1 had successful conducted the acquisition and acceptance of the Marine Corps’ first two MQ-9A aircraft and associated ground equipment, all while continuing daily OCONUS operational tasking while flying from garrison. As the first MQ-9A unit in the Marine Corps, the Watchdogs drafted the MQ-9A NATOPS manual, developed fleet-compliant programs for the MQ-9A to pass maintenance inspections, while ordnance leadership coordinated the acquisition and delivery of trainer MQ-9A aircraft to support Marine and civilian ordnance training and certifications.
Overall, VMU-1 has thus far flown over 4210.0 flight hours in calendar year 2021. The Commandant’s vision for operations in the contact layer, otherwise known as the gray zone, were executed and further refined as squadron operations encountered the actions of foreign state actors outlined in National Defense documents.
On 21 January 1987, 1st RPV Company was activated at Marine Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California followed by 3d RPV Company in June 1987. From 29 January through 3 March 1990, 1st RPV Company operated from LaSalle County Airport in Cotulla, Texas in support of Joint Task Force Six’s drug interdiction Operation BORDER EAGLE. 1st RPV Company Pioneer UAVs helped law enforcement agencies apprehend 372 illegal aliens and confiscate more than $850,000 worth of marijuana during the operation.
From September 1990 through March 1991, both 1st and 3rd RPV Companies were deployed to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in support of Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM, liberating Kuwait from Iraqi invaders. 1st RPV Company flew 169 sorties for 568 flight hours and 3rd RPV Company flew 239 sorties for 695 flight hours in support of the operations in what was the United States’ first combat test of the Pioneer UAV. Both units’ efforts contributed significantly to the coalition’s victory over Iraq and in January of 1994, both companies combined to form 1st UAV Company, later designated VMU-1, reassigned to MAG-13, 3d MAW.
From 5 June through 22 October 1996, VMU-1 was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in support of the NATO peacekeeping Operation JOINT ENDEAVOR and was the first 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing unit to arrive in-theater. From its base at Boyington Airfield near Tuzla, VMU-1 flew 36 sorties for 84.4 flight hours in support of Task Force Eagle.
Between July of 1998 and August of 2002, VMU-1 conducted multiple operations in support of several agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard, Joint Task Force Sic, and the U.S. Border Patrol. The squadron flew over 93 sorties with over 237 flight hours, and was reassigned to MACG-38 in January of 2000.
From February of 2003 to April of 2008, VMU-1 deployed five times in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. They flew over 4,524 sorties and 28,447 hours with the ScanEagle UAV and the Shadow UAS. The squadron gained national attention for this effort in renowned author Bing West’s article “Nowhere to Hide,” featured as the cover story for the February 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine. The essence of this article was later republished as a chapter in the same author’s best-selling book “No True Glory”, published in September 2005.
VMU-1 deployed in support of OEF 11.2/12.1 from November 2011 to March 2012. During this time, the squadron flew over 24,000 flight hours and participated in over 60 named operations. On 17 December 2011, the Watchdogs set a new benchmark in Marine Corps Aviation history with the first successful delivery of cargo in combat utilizing a Cargo Resupply Unmanned Aerial System. In February of 2012, VMU-1 completed the first full integration of the unit into the Link-16 network and effectively accomplished a sensor handoff via Link-16 from an RQ-7B to an F/A-18 Hornet, marking another historic event for the unit.
At the beginning of fiscal year 2015, VMU-1 was reassigned to MAG-13 within 3d MAW, and by 2016 the command had relocated to its current location at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. Over the past four years
VMU-1 has deployed in support of the 11th, 13th, and 15th Marine Expeditionary Units with its newest UAS, the RQ-21A Blackjack. Further in the fall of 2018, VMU-1 became the first Marine Corps UAS to conduct continuous combat operations with the MQ-9A Reaper. Over the past two years, the Watchdogs have flown over 538 sorties, 8,608 flight hours, and facilitated over 281 strikes with the MQ-9A, all in support of theater tasking.
VMU-1 has won the James Maguire Award in 2003, the Edward S. Fris award in 2006, the Commandant’s Aviation trophy in 2008, and John I. Hudson award in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2021 as the Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron of the Year.