The Buzz

The Master Plan to Save America's Aircraft Carriers: Aerial Refueling Drones

Engineering a stealthy 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 stealthy tanker, called the MQ-25A Stingray, 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 Anti-Access/Area-Denial phenomenon wherein 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

“MQ-25A Stingray will help to preserve the power projection dominance of the nation's carrier fleet. MQ-25A Stingray is the next step in the Navy's evolutionary integration of unmanned air systems into the carrier strike group's operational environment.  As part of our incremental approach this will allow the Navy to deliver carrier-based unmanned capability to the fleet faster,” Navair Spokeswoman Jamie Cosgrove told Scout Warrior in a written statement.  

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?

(This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.)

Therein lies the challenge and the requisite need for a stealthy drone tanker able to refuel these carrier-launched aircraft mid-flight, giving them endurance sufficient to attack from longer distances.

Advantages of Stealth:

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 a stealthy 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?

While the value of carriers is, to be sure, far from being questioned, there is an ongoing study directed at taking up and analyzing these questions. Results from the study are not yet available, however some Navy officials have indicated that one potential solution might be to change the configuration of the new high-tech Ford-class aircraft carriers after the first three are built and deployed.

As a result, an aerial drone able to refuel and extend missions for carrier attack aircraft could address or ameliorate some of these concerns.

Also, 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.

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