by Kris Osborn
The Navy is preparing to launch an industry competition for a first-of-its-kind, cyber-hardened unmanned aerial refueling drone for eventual service on an aircraft carrier deck by the early to mid 2020s.
The concept of the effort, called the MQ-25 Stingray, is to fortify the Carrier Air Wing with a hack-proof unmanned refueler able to massively extend the strike and mission range of its on-board aircraft.
The service has awarded four development deals for the MQ-25 to in anticipation of a formal proposal to industry by sometime this summer, NAVAIR Spokeswoman Jamie Cosgrove told Scout Warrior. Deals went to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics and Northrop Grumman.
The process thus far has been geared toward MQ-25A Stingray technical and task analysis efforts spanning air vehicle capabilities, carrier suitability and integration, missions systems and software -- including cybersecurity,
Engineering an unmanned aerial refueling tanker able to take off from a carrier deck and support fighter jets en-route to attack missions is a vital aspect of the Navy plan to meet emerging enemy anti-ship missile threats.
The new carrier-launched tanker will be designed to extend the combat range of key carrier air-wing assets such as F/A-18 Super Hornets and F-35C Joint Strike Fighters. Such an ability is deemed vital to the Pentagon’s concern that long-range precision guided anti-ship missiles are increasingly able to target and destroy aircraft carriers at distances as far as 1,000-miles off shore.
The threat, including weapons such as the Chinese-built DF-21D missile referred to as a “carrier-killer” able to destroy targets more than 900 miles off shore, is sufficient to potentially prevent aircraft carriers from operating in closer proximity to enemy coastlines in order to project power and hold enemy targets at risk, many US military developers say.
“The MQ-25 will provide a robust organic refueling capability to make better use of our combat strike fighters and extend the range of the carrier air wing,” Cosgrove said in a statement to Scout Warrior.
The range or combat radius of carrier-based fighter jets, therefore, is fundamental to this equation. If an F-35C or F/A-18 can, for instance, only travel roughly 500 or 600 miles to attack an inland enemy target such as air-defenses, installations and infrastructure – how can it effectively project power if threats force it to operate 1,000-miles off shore?
Therein lies the challenge and the requisite need for a drone tanker able to refuel these carrier-launched aircraft mid-flight, giving them endurance sufficient to attack from longer distances.
Advantages of a Drone Tanker
An existing large fuselage tanker, such as the emerging Air Force KC-46A, might have too large a radar signature and therefore be far too vulnerable to enemy attack. This, quite naturally, then creates the need for an unmanned platform or drone able to better elude enemy radar and refuel attack aircraft on their way to a mission.
While there is not much public information available about the MQ-25A Stingray as it is an emerging system very early on in the developmental process, Navy officials did explain the key strategic concepts behind its existence to Scout Warrior.
“Greater endurance” is described by Navy officials as a fundamental impetus for the new platform.
“When fielded, MQ-25A Stingray will deliver a high-endurance organic aerial refueling and ISR capability. Unmanned aerial refueling will extend the performance, efficiency and safety of manned aircraft and impart longer range and greater endurance to enable the execution of missions that otherwise could not be performed,” Cosgrove added.
Aerial Refueling Key to Future of Carriers
The emergence of the MQ-25A Stingray comes at a key time amidst ongoing discussions about the trajectory or evolution of aircraft carriers as a platform. Some analysts and military experts, for example, believe carriers may soon become obsolete in light of weapons such as the DF-21D and the prospect of hypersonic attack weapons in the future. If carriers are not able to project power as intended, then should they be replaced with faster, more agile or smaller ships able to carry and launch drones and perform other missions?
Despite the emergence of weapons such as the DF-21D, senior Navy leaders and some analysts have questioned the ability of precision-guided long-range missile to actually hit and destroy carriers on the move at 30-knots from 1,000 miles away. Targeting, guidance on the move fire control, ISR and other assets are necessary for these kinds of weapons to function as advertised. GPS, inertial measurement units, advanced sensors and dual-mode seekers are part of a handful of fast-developing technologies able to address some of these challenges, yet it does not seem clear that long-range anti-ship missiles such as the DF-21D will actually be able to destroy carriers on the move at the described distances.
Furthermore, the Navy is rapidly advancing ship-based defensive weapons, electronic warfare applications, lasers and technologies able to identify and destroy approaching anti-ship cruise missile from ranges beyond the horizon. One such example of this includes the now-deployed Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air system, or NIFC-CA. This technology combines ship-based radar and fire control systems with an aerial sensor and dual-mode SM-6 missile to track and destroy approaching threats from beyond-the-horizon. Ship-based laser weapons and rail guns, in addition, could be among lower-cost ship defense weapons as well.
The MQ-25A Stingray is evolving out of a now-cancelled carrier-launched ISR and attack drone program called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system, or UCLASS. A Northrop demonstrator aircraft, called the X-47B, has already performed successful carrier drone take-offs and landings. Accordingly, the ability of the Navy to operate a drone on an aircraft carrier is already progressing.