Below Glideslope: The MQ-25 Stingray Appears to be Heading for a Ramp Strike
Even as reports surface of American supercarriers and their embarked air-wings hurriedly steaming towards the Korean peninsula, the saga of the Navy’s carrier based unmanned aircraft program seems to have taken yet another turn for the worse. Instead of adhering to direction by both the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the Deputy Secretary of Defense to maximize the strike range of the carrier air wing it appears that naval aviation leadership is placing its finger on the MQ-25 design scale and prioritizing unrefueled endurance for the intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance (ISR) mission at the expense of great fuel offload for long-range mission tanking.
During recent discussions naval aviation leaders stated that the threshold requirements for the as yet un-designed MQ-25 would include the ability to remain airborne for 12 hours in order to perform overnight ISR missions while the carrier deck is shut down. This requirement for MQ-25 to “bridge the night” is a “cut and paste” from the Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program requirement, which was canceled after a review of Joint ISR capabilities concluded that a carrier-based ISR aircraft wasn’t necessary. The problem for MQ-25? Designing an aircraft to fly 12 hours unrefueled negatively impacts its ability to carry large fuel (or other) payloads over long distances. During UCLASS, the ISR endurance requirement came at the expense of internal weapons payload. On MQ-25, the 12-hour requirement applies a “tax” on the aircraft’s long-range refueling capacity.
Conversations with industry experts regarding the MQ-25 suggests that an aircraft small enough to meet the additional requirement of fitting five within the air wing should be capable of offloading up to 17,000 pounds of fuel during a refueling maneuver conducted in a “sweet-spot” 500 and 590 nautical miles from the carrier (the distance of the F-35C’s unrefueled combat radius). However, in an apparent effort to preserve a previously rejected 12-hour ISR endurance requirement, naval aviation officials set the MQ-25 fuel offload requirement at only 14,000 pounds at 500 nautical miles from the carrier. Not only is this 20-25% less than what is achievable, it would result in two fewer F-35Cs being refueled at their maximum radius – a 20% reduction in F-35C striking power.
Perhaps most significantly, naval aviation’s retention of the 12-hour ISR endurance requirement – at the expense of mission tanking – defies clear direction by senior Navy leadership. In August of 2016, sensing naval aviation’s desire to simply resume UCLASS by another name after its cancellation, the CNO and Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition issued a joint program decision memorandum that explicitly stated that “the primary mission for the MQ-25 will be a range-extension aerial refueling platform (tanker) with some secondary ISR capability” and that “the tanking mission will govern the aircraft configuration, and any design trades will prioritize better tanking.” Rather than follow this rather unambiguous order, naval aviation seems intent to once again attempt to develop a long-endurance ISR aircraft with secondary tanking capability, with the ISR mission governing the aircraft configuration and the design trades that prioritizes longer ISR endurance.