Photo by Eric Shindelbower
The U.S. Navy has selected Boeing to build the serviceâ€™s first operational carrier-based drone. The MQ-25 Stingray will be a tanker with some ability to conduct intelligence-gathering missions that will extend the range of the rest of the carrierâ€™s aircraft, allowing them to fly and fight at greater distances than before. The decision follows years of infighting over what sort of aircraft the Navyâ€™s first drone should be, with some arguing a long range bomber would be a better choice.
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Boeing was awarded a $805 million Engineering, Manufacturing, and Development contract to, in the words of the Naval Air Systems Command, â€śdesign, development, fabrication, test, delivery, and support of four MQ-25A unmanned air vehicles, including integration into the carrier air wing for an initial operational capability by 2024.â€ť Ultimately the Navy will probably buy somewhere around 100 of the drones to outfit all eleven Nimitz and Ford-class supercarriers.
For decades, the the range of carrier-based aircraft gradually increased as aircraft development progressed. As a 2015 CNAS report pointed out, in 1944 an Essex-class aircraft carrier could send 90 aircraft carrying an average of 1,800 pounds of bombs to strike targets up to 748 miles away. By 1956 a carrier could send 46 planes, each armed with 4,600 pounds of bombs, to strike targets 1,210 miles awayâ€”and up to 1,800 miles away if the KA-3 Skywarrior aerial refueling tanker was involved.
The end of the Cold War prompted a shift in the makeup of a carrier air wing. A drop in the number of carriers from 14 in 1988 to 12 in the 1990s meant the remaining carriers would have to work harder. The Navy gambled that, in future conflicts, range would have to take a backseat to aircraft reliability and sortie generation. The range loss would be offset by the U.S. Navyâ€™s total domination of the seas, allowing its carriers to operate closer to shore.
By 2006, a Nimitz-class carrier could send 62 aircraft each armed with 12,040 pounds of bombs just 495 miles. More bombs, less range. Super Hornet fighters could extend that range by carrying a buddy tanking system, allowing them to refuel other Hornets and Super Hornets, but that job put unwanted pressure on the Super Hornet fleet and removed aircraft from the strike role.
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The growth of the Chinese militaryâ€”which has oriented itself to specifically counter American military powerâ€”has made the old carrier air wing dangerously obsolete. The DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, designed to attack American aircraft carriers at sea, has a 300 to 500 mile range advantage over the current carrier air wing. In other words, if a carrier wants to bring its fleet of combat aircraft to bear against land-based DF-21D mobile launchers, it has to operate within the Chinese missileâ€™s range envelopeâ€”a dangerous prospect for a ship with 5,000 souls onboard.
A carrier-based drone is one way to get a carrier air wingâ€™s range back, but proponents bickered over exactly how to do it. One group wanted an unmanned, long range strike aircraft similar to the 1980s-era A-6E Intruder. Another group pointed out that an unmanned bomber was just an unmanned bomber, but enough unmanned tankers could extend the range of the entire carrier air wing, five squadrons of strike fighters and electronic attack aircraft. A refueling tanker would also be cheaper and quicker to field, and eventually pave the way for a more complex strike aircraft. Refueling backers won, and the MQ-25A Stingray was born.
The $805 million dollar contract not only includes design and construction of the four aircraft but also the means to operate and maintain them from carriers. Figuring out how to maneuver them on the flight deck is a major obstacleâ€”there is no pilot to take hand and signal cues from flight deck personnel. The contract also specifies equipment necessary to control Stingrays from an aircraft carrier including radio antennas, terminals, networking hardware and so on.
The pace of the MQ-25A program, just four aircraft in six years, is relatively slow considering DF-21D missiles are operational now. But itâ€™s important to get the first carrier-based drone right the first time, both to instill confidence in the program and to pave the way for future carrier-based drones. An actual long range strike drone wasnâ€™t canceled, it was merely delayed. Thereâ€™s no stopping the drone revolution on carrier flight decks at sea.