Navy flight test of the first-of-its-kind carrier-drone launched in 2021

File photo – Boeing MQ-25 unmanned aircraft system (Boeing photo by Eric Shindelbower)

The Navy will be the launch of formal flight test in 2021 for a new, first-of-its kind carrier-launched drone developed to double the attack range of F-18 fighter aircraft, F-35Cs and other carrier aircraft.

The emerging Navy MQ-25 Stingray program, to enter service in mid-2020, a new generation of the technology by the production of a new unmanned aerial re-fueler for the carrier air wing.

“The program is expected to be in flight test by 2021 and reach the initial operational capacity by 2024,” Jamie Cosgrove, spokeswoman for Naval Air Systems Command, told the Warrior Maven.

The Navy recently awarded a development deal from Boeing to further refine and test of the MQ-25.

A central question informs the core of this technology effort: What if the attack power of the carrier fighters such as the F-18, F-35C, can double the distance at which they hold enemy targets at risk? Would such a prospect of substantially expanding the envelope of the offensive attack operations, while the carriers themselves are working on a safer distances?

The Navy believes so; “the MQ-25 provide a robust organic refueling capability, extending the range of the carrier air wing to make better use of the Navy combat strike fighters,” Wouter said.

Maybe enemy targets 1,000 miles away, at sea or deep inland, could successfully be destroyed by carrier launched fighters that with a vastly expanded control of the beam. This would not be of crucial importance in a world of rapidly changing high-tech missiles and aircraft threats from potential opponents, such as the near-peer rivals? Perhaps of equal or greater relevance, what if the re-fueler had a drone, able to operate in the forward high-risk locations to support fighter jets – and that while not placing a large manned tanker aircraft within range of enemy fire?

The emergence of a drone of this kind bears prominently on the ongoing questions about the future of aircraft carriers in light of the current, fast-changing hazards. Chinese DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship guided missiles, for example, it is said that they are able to destroy targets as far away as 900 nautical miles. Although there are a number of questions about this weapon the ability to strike moving targets, and the carriers of course are armed with a wide range of layered defense, the Chinese weapon brings a significant risk potentially large enough to require the carriers to operate much further from the coast.

In this scenario, these Chinese so-called “carrier-killer” missiles could, quite possibly, on a carrier back to a point where the fighters are no longer range of a strike in the interior of enemy targets from the air. The new drone is designed, at least to a large extent, as a specific way to resolve this problem. If the attack distance of a F-18, which might have a fight with a radius of 500 km or so, then double-click carrier-based fighters can strike targets up to 1000 km away if they are refueled in the air.

Also, despite the emergence of weapons such as the DF-21D, senior Marine leaders and some analysts have questioned the ability of precision-guided long-range missile to actually hit and destroy the carriers on the move of 30 knots 1,000 miles away. Targeting, information about the move of fire control, ISR and other assets necessary for these types of weapons in order to function as advertised. GPS, inertial measurement units, advanced sensors and a dual-mode seekers are part of a handful of of the rapidly developing technologies in a number of these challenges, but it seems that it is not clear that a long-range anti-ship missiles such as the DF-21D will actually be able to destroy the carriers on the move at the described distances.

In addition, the Navy is quick ship-based defensive weapons, electronic warfare applications, lasers and technologies can identify and destroy approaching anti-ship cruise missiles of ranges beyond the horizon. Carriers often travel in the Carrier Strike Groups where they are surrounded by destroyers and cruisers able to get extra protection. An 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 antenna-sensor and dual-mode SM-6 missiles to track and destroy approaching threats from beyond-the-horizon. Ship-based laser weapons and rail guns in addition can be between a lower cost and ship defense weapons.

The MQ-25A Stingray is evolving from a now-cancelled carrier-launched ISR and drone attack program called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system, or UCLASS.

A Northrop demonstrator aircraft, called the X-47B, has already carried out successful carrier drone take-offs and landings. Accordingly, the ability of the Navy to work with a drone on an aircraft carrier is already progressing and has shown.

An existing large hull of the tanker, such as the emerging Air Force KC-46A, maybe a big radar signature and therefore be much too vulnerable for enemy attacks. This, quite naturally, then, the need arises for a drone able to better escape from enemy radar and refuel attack aircraft on the way to a mission.

The beginning of the engineering process up to now it is focused on the MQ-25A Stingray technical and task analysis efforts spanning air vehicle capabilities, carrier suitability and integration, mission systems and software — including cybersecurity.

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