Navy considering other types of unmanned aircraft for future carrier air wing

The Navy is developing several unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as it works on the air wing of the future for aircraft carriers beyond the unmanned tanker it plans to deploy later this decade.

Rear Admiral Andrew Loiselle, Director of the Air Warfare Division, N98, emphasized this week that the air wing of the future will operate at ranges “that far exceed what we do today. And so in order to do that, the unmanned wallet really needs to be part of that system, because that’s the easiest way for us to keep a full-size plane, but then have all that extra space for fuel that gives us the autonomy that we need to be able to go out and play with some of the planes that are being developed right now, at much greater distances.

Loiselle explained her views on future unmanned aircraft during a July 13 speech at an event hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While he was unwilling to divulge specific capabilities or projects beyond the Boeing [BA] MQ-25A Stingray tanker, Loiselle said that when considering future unmanned aircraft on an aircraft carrier, he divided them into three sets.

“The first set is something that can go into a hostile environment, a high threat environment, and it can stay there, it can persist in a high threat environment. The second set is something that can go into this high-threat environment, briefly do a given mission, i.e. a strike mission, and then leave and have a very high chance of coming home.

“And then the last set is something that is at an attritable price, a much smaller vehicle that could perform a number of different missions, anything from going over there with our fighter jet and carrying more air-to-air missiles for these types of missions. Or we could one day integrate this stuff into our electronic warfare, distributed architecture that will carry out this mission. And then we could also use these same types of drones for a distributed command and control network,” he continued.

When asked if any of these UAVs under development were part of the Navy’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) development, Loiselle said not exclusively.

“I would say no…and the reason I say no is not that they wouldn’t be used within NGAD, it’s that they’re not exclusively for that platform. Agreed, there is equal applicability in the manned-unmanned team concept for any small UAS for use with any aircraft on our flight deck. It is not limited to this ability alone.

The Boeing MQ-25A T1 unmanned test aircraft tanker refuels a Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter on September 13 (Photo: US Navy)

Unlike the Air Force, the Navy has maintained budget levels for its Classified 6th Generation NGAD fighter program since the fiscal year 2020 budget request. In that year, the Navy requested funding of $20.7 million and planned to spend about $256 million in FY22. In contrast, the Air Force is being asked for nearly $1.7 billion for its NGAD research and development account in fiscal year 23.

When the Department of Defense budget request was released in March, Rear Admiral John Gumbleton, Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy for Budget, told reporters, “NGAD is a classified program and I would tell you that the increase in funding also increases during the FYDP, but we choose to keep this value ranked.

He added that over the five years of the Future Years Defense Program, the NGAD budget the line rises “somewhat dramatically” (daily defenseMarch 28).

For now, Loiselle stressed the importance of the MQ-25A as the next step in unmanned operations and extending naval aviation ranges.

“In development, we have the MQ 25, which is envisioned as a tanker first. And so that’s its primary role in its initial instantiation. And so we expect it to make its first deployment in the [2026] Time range. And so they are real. And there are several other things in development right now that I’m excited about,” he said.

Asked what operations the MQ-25 will undertake, Loiselle said the Navy has yet to define the “exact concept of operations for exactly what we will do with this airframe,” but it will be the recovery tanker for six at 10 cycles. in a row. In contrast, current F/A-18E/F Super Hornets acting as tankers perform one pattern per event.

“So it’s going to be there for a good bit longer,” Loiselle said.

The first operational MQ-25A Stingray tankers should be deployed aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-73) by 2026.

Loiselle noted that the plane can pass around 15,000 pounds of gas up to 500 nautical miles from the carrier, freeing up the Super Hornets currently being used for refueling as additional attack aircraft.

Vice Admiral Kenneth Whitesell, Commander Naval Air Force and Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, clarified where the Navy is at with the MQ-25 at this time.

“This will extend the reach of the carrier’s force. So what [in] extremis how we use it. We’ve now thought about removing it from the rack, retrieving it…for that we’re now talking about thinking about where it’s going to stack? Where are you going? Is it going starboard delta? Where is it recovered at the time? Where are we going to park the numbers that we want to put on the carrier… So we’re not just rushing into this uninformed situation today, we’re working on a model. The IOC arrives in 25.”

Last December, the Navy completed testing control the first Boeing-built MQ-25 test medium, designated T-1, aboard the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) for deck handling operations. This did not include any flight testing off the carrier (daily defenseDecember 20, 2021).

The Navy expects the first engineering and manufacturing aircraft model of the MQ-25 to be delivered this fall or winter. This aircraft will then perform carrier-based flight tests.

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