Naval Aviation: To be Relevant or Not, That is the Question
Sometimes it’s really all about the math and not a fuzzy conversation about policy. Vice Admiral Mike Shoemaker, the Commander of the Navy’s air forces, otherwise known as the “Air Boss” within the service, stated at a public event at a Washington, DC think tank that naval aviation was working to find a balance between the tanker and surveillance missions, as well as the importance of stealth technologies, when considering the design characteristics of the MQ-25 “Stingray” aircraft. A surveillance mission emphasis drives designers to a large wingspan, higher altitudes, and more efficient engine designs. Tanking missions, on the other hand, require larger fuel capacities and higher speed/lower efficiency engines in order to match the strike aircraft’s transit profile. Stealth would allow the tankers to accompany strikers farther into their attack missions or surveil closer to enemy defenses. Shoemaker, to his credit, acknowledged that the design priorities of strike and ISR were discordant with each other. It is clear that trying to get to a “sweet spot” between these two is counterproductive and misses the point; the decision to cancel the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program and create the MQ-25 Stingray tanker was done specifically to speedily address the Navy’s strategic deficit in long range strike.
The MQ-25 program was initiated at the direction of Office of the Secretary of Defense to produce a mission tanker as a means of extending the striking range of the Navy’s presently conceived air wing, composed of 490-mile combat radius FA-18 Hornets and 600+ mile F-35Cs. Ideally a strike mission planner would like to have a tanker capable of “filling-up” its customer aircraft near their max range, and thus giving them a full tank to reach out beyond the 900 standoff range imposed upon the carrier by new Anti-Access/Area Denial weapons being developed by would be enemies like China and Russia. Doing the math, this would drive aeronautical engineers to design an unmanned aircraft that can give 10,000 pounds of gas to each of two aircraft 500 miles from the carrier and still have enough fuel to make it back home.
To have an effective strike element, the standard attack formation would be composed of a minimum of four aircraft, so that equates to two mission tankers for the outbound leg, and then two mission tankers to “catch” the strike aircraft when they come off their targets and transit home. This simple calculation suggests that the airwing needs a minimum of four tanker aircraft to accomplish a basic strike mission in perfect world. Aviation maintenance officers, however, will tell you that you can only plan for an 80% availability rate (something is always being broken just when you need it) and critical missions always require a “spare” aircraft to be in a ready alert status, so now we are at six aircraft. Add into the mix a consistent requirement to keep a recovery tanker over the carrier during flight operations to be prepared to give the nugget pilot enough fuel to make another approach after missing the wire the first time and now the requirement is seven aircraft. Seven aircraft large enough to give 20,000 pounds of fuel will mean that they are not small. Hence they will be in excess of a 1.0 spot factor (basically the size of a FA-18C Hornet) on the carrier’s deck. Conversations with naval aviation planners suggest that 7.0 “spots” are all that is available on the carrier’s deck, an assertion that deserves further scrutiny.
Logically it is understood that only so many planes can be parked on an aircraft carrier’s 4.5-acre flight deck. In the past Nimitz class carriers could carry 90 aircraft by making full use of their deck, elevators and three massive hangar bays below the flight deck. However, in recent years the hangar bays of the carrier have been overtaken by weight machines, treadmills, trash compressors, and recycled waste storage units which have had the net effect of decreasing the number of aircraft that can be carried on and hence launched from the carrier. Under these conditions, the “spot factor” of the new tanker is a critical design requirement. It is important to pursue a design that brings the most fuel density per spot on the deck, something designers will consider when comparing wing-body-tail configurations versus flying wing designs.