In Janurary 2018, the Navy began the process of examining proposals to design and field an unmanned tanking and ISR system for operational deployment on aircraft carriers. As the procurement journey begins, it is important to define what this aircraft will mean to the carrier strike group, both now and in the future. With MQ-25, the Navy is taking a bold step into the unmanned age and bringing a new and exciting element to carrier aviation. To understand where we are going, we have to start with where we have been. Over the next few weeks, GA-ASI will bring you the history of the MQ-25, and a little background on why this requirement is so important to the future of US Naval Superiority.
A Torturous Path
The story of MQ-25/Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) is a long and labored one. Before arriving at the most urgent design needs for MQ-25, many voices were involved. Large defense companies and their surrogates argued that the Navy needed an all-aspect stealth penetration aircraft. Others stated that it should be, or could be, as easy as taking the pilot out of a manned aircraft, put in a few boxes, and “un-man” a Super Hornet. Unfortunately, the voice of Navy leadership was apparently crushed under the stampede of contractors and bureaucrats who sensed an opportunity to sell their own ideas of what was needed. The competing, sub-optimized, and gold-plated offerings from multiple sources effectively killed the design before it began. Research and development, along with procurement, ground to a halt in early 2015.
During the subsequent two-year delay, the Navy had an opportunity to conduct a ground up evaluation of the MQ-25 requirements. First, carrier air wings require a better way to tank. In looking at organic tanking, it became clear that tactical aircraft are tanked in the most inefficient way possible. Except for trucking diesel through enemy territory in Afghanistan, delivering fuel to an airborne F/A-18 with another F/A-18 is the highest “fully burdened cost of fuel” of any service, anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the Navy is wearing out their premier fighters by configuring at least 6 of the 44 assigned to a carrier air wing as heavy tankers. It is estimated that around 20% of Super Hornet fatigue life is currently consumed by the tanking mission. Given the readiness challenges facing tactical aviation, we must be smarter. The addition of a carrier-based unmanned tanker effectively returns six strike-fighters back to the carrier strike group while more efficiently tanking aircraft overhead or at range.
A Concept Emerges
Navy design objectives are anticipated to be around 15,000 pounds of fuel at 500 NM from the carrier - significantly more fuel offload than is currently offered. In fact, this author’s discussions with industry experts indicate that there are designs that can offer much more fuel while providing better than 12 hours of unrefueled endurance when configured for ISR. This will allow F/A-18’s, and soon F-35’s, to operate at range, threatening enemy targets well away from the aircraft carrier as well as allow for “bridge the night” operations.
Additionally, the Navy’s concept for MQ-25 includes an ability to perform long endurance ISR from the CVN. As with any effective ISR aircraft, it must be able operate at significant range from the aircraft carrier and for extended periods of time. For years, strike group commanders have lamented that their situational awareness is directly tied to whether the carrier air wing is operating or not. While non-organic ISR is sometimes available, it can be episodic or non-existent depending on the mission and location of the CSG. Like the tanker, Naval Aviation needs an aircraft that can not only operate at range, but one that will easily span the “deck-cycle”, the period when the carrier air wing is not flying.
Keeping the Strike Group Safe and Informed
Envisioning MQ-25 launching at the end of a typical carrier fly-day and recovering after the next day’s first launch is easy. As aircrew of manned aircraft rest, MQ-25 operators, at sea or ashore, are performing all of the tasks required to keep the strike group safe and operationally informed. In contested environments, the side that knows where the enemy is (and is not) will have the advantage. In considering this, it becomes clear that aircraft operating well away from the carrier will have a counter-ISR role as well, helping the CSG to stay concealed until a time and place of their choosing.
Some have argued that longer endurance aircraft will have less fuel capacity. Last year, naval observer Jerry Hendrix argued that “Designing an aircraft to fly 12 hours unrefueled negatively impacts its ability to carry large fuel (or other) payloads over long distances.” This is incorrect. In fact, relatively long (12 hours or more) endurance and air refueling offload are not mutually exclusive and are both necessary to meet critical Navy operational needs. Aircraft designers have long understood that utilizing proven, high-bypass engine technology can create an aircraft with both significant endurance and fuel offload. A stealth fighter, or F/A-18, is not optimized for fuel give or ISR – it is designed to go fast while maneuvering at heavy g-loads. For the MQ-25, neither of these things is required or desired and would represent a significant “over-design” of the aircraft. Hopefully, the airframe which will be chosen for the MQ-25 will have enough wing area to allow for optimized fuel give and significant endurance.
An Enduring Solution
Combining a large fuel offload with a long-endurance capability is the challenge facing designers of the MQ-25. An aircraft that can offload 15,000 pounds of fuel at 500 NM would enable two F-35’s to operate around 1000 NM from the carrier. The advantages of long endurance are being effectively utilized today in 69 different MQ-9 Predator orbits around the world, 24/7. What ground commanders have found is that persistent ISR leads to a more effective utilization of their manned assets and can provide lethal effects when desired. Interestingly, the most kinetic platforms in the Army and Air Force today are unmanned, long endurance aircraft.
A well-designed tanker/ISR platform will change how we fight at sea. Enabling next-generation aircraft to operate forward will effectively bring the deep-strike mission back to carrier aviation. Persistent, networked, ISR will enable a range of capabilities for the CSG while allowing it to dominate in contested environments. The studies and analysis are clear that both significantly large tanker fuel give at range and long endurance ISR are compatible in the same air vehicle design. It is past time for Super Hornets to get out of the tanking business and for the Navy to move out with the MQ-25 program.