Is the US Navy Planning Big Changes to America's Future Aircraft Carriers?

Is the US Navy Planning Big Changes to America's Future Aircraft Carriers?

Threats from carrier-killer missiles and other weapons of war could force some big changes. 

Enemy sensors, aircraft, drones and submarines are all advancing their respective technologies at an alarming rate - creating a scenario wherein carriers as they are currently configured could have more trouble operating closer to enemy coastlines. 

At the same time – despite these concerns about current and future threat environments, carriers and power projects – few are questioning the value, utility and importance of Navy aircraft carriers.

MQ-25 Stingray - Carrier Launched Refueling Drone: 

 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?

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 -- Aerial Refueling Key to Future of Carriers:

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.  

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?

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.

 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.

Future Carrier Air Wing: 

The Navy is working on number of next-generation ship defenses such as Naval Integrated Fire Control –Counter Air, a system which uses Aegis radar along with an SM-6 interceptor missile and airborne relay sensor to detect and destroy approaching enemy missiles from distances beyond the horizon. The integrated technology deployed last year.

Stealth fighter jets, carrier-launched drones, V-22 Ospreys, submarine-detecting helicopters, laser weapons and electronic jamming are all deemed indispensable to the Navy’s now unfolding future vision of carrier-based air power, senior service leaders said. Last year, the Navy announced that the V-22 Osprey will be taking on the Carrier On-Board Delivery mission wherein it will carry forces and equipment on and off carriers while at sea.  

Citing the strategic deterrence value and forward power-projection capabilities of the Navy’s aircraft carrier platforms, the Commander of Naval Air Forces spelled out the services’ future plans for the carrier air wing severa years ago at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C think tank.

Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, Commander, Naval Air Forces, has argued in favor of the continued need for Navy aircraft carriers to project power around the globe. His comments arrived at a time when many were raising questions about the future of carriers in an increasingly high-tech threat environment.  

 “Even in contested waters our carrier group can operate, given the maneuverability of the carrier strike group and the composition of the carrier air wing,” Shoemaker said in August of 2014. A Russian S-500, able to hit ranges of up to 125 miles is now under development, The National Interest reports. 

This means, among other things, that Shoemaker believes the F-35C is likely to have some success against even the most advanced Russian-build surface-to-air missiles such at the S-300, S-400 and emerging S-500. 

Shoemaker explained how the shape and technological characteristics of the carrier air wing mentioned will be changing substantially in coming years. The Navy’s carrier-launched F-35C stealth fighter will begin to arrive in the next decade and the service will both upgrade existing platforms and introduce new ones.

The Navy plans to have its F-35C operational by 2018 and have larger numbers of them serving on carriers by the mid-2020s.

The service plans to replace its legacy or “classic” F/A-18s with the F-35C and have the new aircraft fly alongside upgraded F/A-18 Super Hornet’s from the carrier deck.

While the F-35C will bring stealth fighter technology and an ability to carry more ordnance to the carrier air wing, its sensor technologies will greatly distinguish it from other platforms, Shoemaker said.

“The most important thing that the F-35C brings is the ability to fuse information, collect the signals and things that are out in the environment and fuse it all together and deliver that picture to the rest of the carrier strike group,” Shoemaker explained.

At the same time, more than three-quarters of the future air wing will be comprised of F/A-18 Super Hornets, he added.

 The submarine hunting technologies of the upgraded MH-60R is a critical component of the future air wing, Navy officials have said.

“The R (MH-60R) comes with a very capable anti-submarine warfare package. It has an airborne low frequency sensor, an advanced periscope detection system combined with a data link, and forward looking infrared radar. With its very capable electronic warfare suite, it is the inner defense zone against the submarine for the carrier strike group,” Shoemaker said.