Science

The U.S. Navy Is Finally Getting Carrier Drones. It Only Took 60 Years.

Naval observers were befuddled when, after years of exciting experimentation ending in 2015, the U.S. Navy seemed to give up on acquiring a high-performance, combat-capable drone for its carrier air wings.

Now, years later, the U.S. Navy finally is coming back around to the idea of a carrier-compatible combat drone. The sailing branch’s new aviation strategy confirms that the MQ-25 robotic tanker, the only unclassified air vehicle to come out of the earlier experiments, will pull double duty as a surveillance system.

The MQ-25 could help the fleet to work out procedures for future drones. If and when the fleet’s next-generation stealth fighter reaches carrier decks around 2035, it could operate with a bunch of sophisticated robotic wingmen.

The Navy experimented with carrier-launched drones as far back as the Vietnam War. The service bought a few Model 147 reconnaissance drones from Ryan Aeronautical and, in late 1969, launched the subsonic vehicles 28 times from the deck of the carrier USS Ranger sailing off the coast of North Vietnam.

The Model 147s snapped photos of North Vietnamese forces, as designed, but the Navy decided that the drones’ launch method—boosting via rocket from an angled ramp—was overly disruptive to the clockwork of routine flight ops.

So the Navy dropped the idea of a carrier drone until it was possible to launch one the same way it launched manned planes—via catapult. In the late 1990s, the Navy teamed up with the U.S. Air Force to develop stealthy, weapons-capable, subsonic jet drones.

The Boeing X-45 and Northrop Grumman X-47 drones—respectively the favorites of the Air Force and Navy—were marvels of modern robotics. But inter-service squabbling doomed the joint effort. Around 2005 the Navy and Air Force went their separate ways.

Today the Air Force is test-flying armed drones that, conceptually, owe a lot of the X-45’s trailblazing work. The Navy for its part ordered a bigger version of the X-47 and, between 2013 and 2015, launched and landed it on carrier decks and even refueled it in mid-air, effectively proving that a high-performance drone could work in existing carrier air wings, or CVWs.

But instead of evolving the X-47 into the world’s first carrier-capable combat drone, the Navy backpedaled. It tapped Boeing to build the MQ-25, but only as a tanker. The MQ-25 carries underwing refueling systems in order to relieve manned F/A-18 fighters of their tanker duties, thus indirectly boosting a carrier air wing’s striking power.

It always was obvious the MQ-25 could do more, however. The 51-foot, subsonic drone with its top-mounted intake clearly possesses a degree of radar stealth. Its 500-mile range with an eight-ton payload is comparable to the range and payload of a manned fighter. It wouldn’t be hard to fit the drone with sensors and weapons for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—or “ISR”—and light strike missions.

Observers for years have pointed out the MQ-25’s potential. Now that the drone is just three years from its first front-line cruise, the Navy also is acknowledging that potential. “The MQ-25 will be the Navy’s first aircraft carrier-based unmanned platform and will increase the lethality and reach of the CVW as a tanker with a secondary ISR role,” the service stated in its new aviation strategy.

The Navy plans to buy more than 70 MQ-25s for around $13 billion. Each of the nine CVWs could get at least five of the drones. The Navy is installing drone control rooms on all 11 aircraft carriers in the fleet. Sailors are training with wrist-worn controllers for steering the drones on crowded carrier decks.

The same hardware and training that are prerequisites for the MQ-25 joining the CVWs could accommodate additional drone types. The Navy already is thinking ahead. “Along with organic tanking, the MQ-25 will pave the way for unmanned air vehicles on the carrier and manned and unmanned teaming,” or “MUM-T.”

MUM-T is military parlance for robot wingmen—stealthy, armed, high-performance drones that can fly alongside manned fighters, adding their sensors and weapons to an aerial battle. The Air Force already is test-flying its own wingman drones. The Navy aims to do the same as it also launches development of a new, farther-flying stealth fighter it calls “F/A-XX.”

That new fighter will be a “quarterback” for drones, the Navy explained in its aviation strategy. A graphic in the new publication depicts a notional F/A-XX commanding two armed drone wingmen plus a radar-jamming drone and an additional command-and-control drone, presumably for relaying radio signals back to the carrier.

Graphics don’t win wars, of course. At the moment, the MQ-25 is all the Navy has to show for a generation of experimentation that itself had an abortive early start way back in 1969.

But the fleet seems determined to start with the MQ-25, expand that drone’s missions through the 2020s then, in the following decade, begin adding more and more capable drones to the carrier air wings. “The appropriate mix of F/A-XX, manned and unmanned platforms will be evaluated to ensure the most lethal and affordable CVW possible.”


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