America’s reach, into the South China Sea, just got a big boost.
It wasn’t exactly Chuck Yeager, breaking the sound barrier, but it did make military aviation history just the same.
According to Popular Mechanics, history was made last fall, when a US Navy’s MQ-25A Stingray tanker conducted the first successful refueling of an F-35C strike fighter.
That’s right, a refueling drone — a robot, in effect, controlled by a ground station.
Overnight, the successful MG-25A test rendered typical refueling tankers, with full crews, obsolete — possibly changing warfare as we know it.
The Boeing-built T1 prototype for the Navy’s MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial vehicle was operating from the MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, Ill., just outside of St. Louis, USNI News reported.
According to The Drive, The Navy needs the MQ-25 not only to free up F/A-18F jets currently assigned to the refueling mission, and to preserve Super Hornet fatigue life, but also to extend the range of both the Super Hornet and the F-35C.
This would be a prerequisite of any future conflict with a near-peer opponent, especially one in the broad expanses of the Asia-Pacific theater against China.
The future is likely to be dominated by drones and autonomous and unmanned military technology, according to military experts, and to borrow a phrase from Britain’s SAS, he who dares, will not only win, but have a distinct advantage.
“During the flight, the receiver Navy F/A-18 [Super] Hornet approached the Boeing-owned MQ-25 T1 test asset, conducted a formation evaluation, wake survey, drogue tracking and then plugged with the unmanned aircraft. T1 then successfully transferred fuel from its Aerial Refueling Store (ARS) to the F/A-18,” Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) said in a statement.
“The milestone comes after 25 T1 flights, testing both aircraft and ARS aerodynamics across the flight envelope, as well as extensive simulations of aerial refuelling using MQ-25 digital models. MQ-25 T1 will continue flight testing prior to being shipped to Norfolk, Virginia, for deck handling trials aboard a US Navy carrier later this year.”
The successful test is the latest step in giving carrier-based fighters longer legs than ever before, allowing them to fly and fight while keeping the aircraft carrier safely out of range of enemy weapons, Popular Mechanics said of the maneuver.
Sailing a carrier into striking distance is just too big a risk to abide, so instead, the Navy is looking for ways to extend the reach of its aircraft, allowing sorties to launch from outside the range of China’s missiles and still engage targets on their shoreline.
“To see T1 [Stingray prototype] fly with the hardware and software that makes MQ-25 an aerial refueler this early in the program is a visible reminder of the capability we’re bringing to the carrier deck,” Dave Bujold, the MQ-25A Stingray program director, said in a statement.
“We’re ensuring the ARS and the software operating it will be ready to help MQ-25 extend the range of the carrier air wing.”
China has claimed sovereignty over the entirety of the South China Sea, and despite having its claims not only rejected by the international community but even dismissed in international courts, President Xi Jinping has opted to leverage China’s rapidly growing Navy to enforce their claims anyway, Sandboxx.com reported.
The South China Sea sees around a third of all global commerce sail across its surface.
The Stingray was originally intended to serve as an offensive platform, deploying from carriers, engaging ground targets in contested airspace, and returning once again.
However, the development of China’s arsenal of hypersonic anti-ship missiles forced the Navy to reconsider their goals. Instead of needing a carrier-based UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle), the Navy realized what they really needed was a way to extend the fuel range of their existing F-35C Joint Strike Fighters and F/A-18 Super Hornets.
In 2018, Boeing won a $805 million contract to build the first four Stingrays, beating out General Atomics and Lockheed Martin to develop the unmanned carrier tanker. Last year, the Navy exercised a $84.7 million contract to buy three more, USNI News reported.
The service is set to buy 76 of the MQ-25As for about $1.3 billion.
The future tanker models will move beyond the capabilities of the prototype to make the aircraft suitable to take to sea.
“T1 again has been a tremendous asset for the US Navy and for Boeing for us to learn early, but we don’t have plans to continue [with] it as we move into the next phase of testing with the EDM – the engineering development models – as we move forward with the Navy test aircraft,” Navy unmanned carrier aviation program manager Capt. Chad Reed told USNI News.
“We will take T1 aboard the flight deck of a carrier in port and test out another vital part of our program. That’s the deck control device.”
The Navy has simultaneously contracted Lockheed Martin to build a new ground control station for the MQ-25.
In the future, the Navy wants “common control standards and systems” that are interoperable and capable of controlling more than just one kind of drone, Capt. Reed said.
The introduction of the MQ-25 is part of a wider doctrinal shift within the carrier air wing, or CVW, in which unmanned platforms will play an increasingly important role, The Drive reported.
The Navy is now looking to move to a 40-60 unmanned-manned split, before achieving a 60-40 unmanned-manned split in the long term.
The Navy plans to declare an initial operating capability (IOC) for MQ-25A by 2025.
Once operational, these drones will be able to operate autonomously off the decks of America’s Nimitz and Ford class carriers to meet returning fighters to refuel them and extend their range. However, the MQ-25 Stingray’s UCAV roots may ultimately come back into the picture a few years down the line.