(Washington, D.C.) The Navy’s first-of-its-kind carrier-launched drone has taken its first flight by completing an “autonomous two-hour flight” operating from a ground control station, according to statements released by Boeing and the Navy.
The emerging sea-launched refueler drone, called the MQ-25, intended to introduce new attack tactics for the service and substantially improve the “strike” reach of aircraft carriers.
The test aircraft, called the T1 “completed an autonomous taxi and takeoff and then flew a pre-determined route to validate the aircraft’s basic flight functions and operations with the ground control station,” according to a Boeing statement.
The promise of this emerging refueler drone, which will enable F-35Cs and F/A-18s to nearly double their attack range, is expected to bear prominently upon the Navy’s future plans regarding carrier designs, strategies and new technologies.
The MQ-25 testing and preparation phase, began with carefully executed ground testing, culminating in its first flight in mid-September of this year. This testing has sought to closely replicate the fast-changing, difficult conditions which complicate carrier landing to the largest degree possible.
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Over the years, Navy carrier-air wing drone developers have emphasized the challenges of engineering a drone able to navigate the complex sphere of variables complicating drone-carrier landings. Unique conditions, such as wind speed, carrier water speed, sea conditions or weather obscurants can challenge a carrier drone’s landing trajectory.
On-board human pilots may have occasion to make quick sudden adjustments and maintain focus on the “fresnel lens” - a series of lights intended to direct a landing aircraft into a safe and accurate “glide slope” onto the carrier deck. These tasks, however, are known to be much more difficult for human tele-operated flight controllers or semi-autonomous drones driven by algorithms. Essentially, there are challenges fundamental to carrier landings known to rely heavily upon human problem-solving faculties and cognition.
Nonetheless, an aerial refueler will massively extend the attack range of carriers, potentially enabling them to launch a high volume of attacks while safely beyond the reach of the often discussed Chinese “carrier-killer” anti-ship guided missiles. These weapons, such as the DF-21D and DF-26, are reported to have an ability to reach targets at ranges out to 900 miles.
For instance, if a carrier-launched fighter has a current range of somewhere between 300 and 500 nautical miles before needing to turn around, doubling that with an aerial refueler could greatly improve power-projection attack options for ship commanders. This not only brings the possibility for carriers to attack farther off an enemy coastline, but also enables carrier-launched fighters to stay longer on-station during missions or destroy targets much farther inland than may have been previously possible.
Next-generation “layered” carrier defenses now in-development, such as advanced electronic warfare, laser weapons or much longer-range sensors will undoubtedly improve a carrier’s ability to operate in high-threat areas. At the same time, shock trials have shown over the years that missiles simply landing “near” a carrier can cause serious problems. Therefore, an anti-ship missile such as a DF-21D could cause substantial damage to a carrier platform - even if it does not directly hit the ship. In effect, should an enemy missiles’ guidance system be jammed, derailed or intercepted in the vicinity of a carrier, it might still bring significant risks.
A 2007 Department of Defense-directed Shock Trials analysis by the non-profit MITRE corporation explains that many of the expected or most probable threats to warships come from “non-contact explosions where a high-pressure wave is launched toward the ship.”
MITRE’s report, interestingly, also identifies the inspiration for Shock Trials as one originating from World War II.
“During World War II, it was discovered that although such “near miss” explosions do not cause serious hull or superstructure damage, the shock and vibrations associated with the blast nonetheless incapacitate the ship, by knocking out critical components and systems,” the MITRE assessment, called “Navy Ship Underwater Shock Prediction and Testing Capability Study” states.
The MITRE analysis further specifies that, following a nearby explosion, the bulkhead of a ship can oscillate, causing the ship to move upward.
“Strong localized deformations are seen in the deck modes,” MITRE writes.
Given these factors, a carrier-launched refueler still brings unparalleled, even potentially indispensable advantages to future attack options. Even if, for the sake of discussion, advanced carrier defenses will enable a carrier to operate at-will -- essentially at any chosen range or attack position -- having an aerial refueler will open up an entirely new sphere of targets for carrier-launched fighters.
Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.