New details about America’s pilotless aerial tanker
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Since at least 2007, the U.S. Navy has been toying around with the idea of adding drones to its carrier air wings. During the same period, the sailing branch, the Pentagon and American lawmakers have repeatedly sparred over exactly what these pilotless planes are supposed to actually do.
In February 2016, as part of its annual budget request, the Navy confirmed that it wanted to change the focus of the drone project from developing a stealthy attacker to developing a robotic aerial tanker. The next month, the sailing branch rushed to get a new official designation for the aircraft to go along with that shift in emphasis.
The “program … no longer aligns with the ZRAQ-25A designator,” Naval Air Systems Command explained in the formal request. To support the argument, the office included a relatively detailed, three-page description of what it expected from the future aircraft.
War Is Boring obtained this and other documents related to the name-change via the Freedom of Information Act. The U.S. Air Force — which handles all of these requests — ultimately approved the new name ZMQ-25A. In the Pentagon’s naming scheme, the letter “Z” here refers to unbuilt aircraft still on the drawing board.
The Navy’s carrier drone program has had a tumultuous history. The project grew out of a failed partnership between the sailing branch and the Air Force that ended in 2006.
The next year, the Navy hired Northrop Grumman to work on two new test aircraft. The Virginia-based plane-maker revamped the design from the earlier Navy-Air Force tests, producing a stealthy-looking “cranked kite” flying wing.
In 2013, these experimental X-47B drones made aviation history by taking off of and landing on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia. Nearly two years later, one of the pilotless test planes made headlines again when became the first ever purely unmanned aircraft to link up with a flying tanker — at least that we can be certain of.
But while the aircraft were passing these milestones, a controversy erupted over the basic concept for the drone. The Pentagon had initially dubbed the proposed aircraft RAQ-25, referring to a drone whose main missions are reconnaissance and attack.
Less than a year later, the Navy was firmly on a different track with what it had informally started calling the “Stingray.”
“We kind of revamped our strategy,” the sailing branch’s top officer, Adm. John Richardson, told a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute think tank on Feb. 12, 2016. “It has a legitimate role in terms of tanking, and I would say that [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] is on the table, for sure.”
On March 1, 2016, the service had to describe just what the “revamped strategy” was, when it asked the Air Force to rename the drone. Now midair refueling and spying were in the plan.
The primary mission would be so-called “recovery tanking.” This involves refueling planes flying in a fixed orbit around the aircraft carrier.
With these flying gas stations in place, the Navy’s manned strike planes — including F/A-18E/F Super Hornets — can fly missions that might otherwise leave them with too little fuel to safely return to the ship. With no other options, since 2009 the sailing branch has had to rely on Super Hornets — which could otherwise be attacking the enemy — to provide this important service.
According to the official description, an MQ-25 tanker should be able to make at least three full loops around the carrier before it itself needs to refuel. The drone could carry up to 10,000 pounds of fuel on each flight.
And when a carrier’s MQ-25 drones aren’t topping up the gas tanks of other planes, they will be spying and otherwise keeping an eye out for trouble. The Stingrays will have powerful cameras and special gear to scoop up radio chatter. The review doesn’t say whether the pilotless aircraft will be able to carry both types of equipment at once.
The MQ-25 will also have the ability to gather data from commercial “automatic identification systems.” These devices function like a transponder in an aircraft and broadcast key information, such as the vessel’s name.
Depending on what specific sensors are installed, the Navy expects other ships or even ground troops to control or view the video feeds and other information. In some circumstances, a command station on the ground might even fly the drone itself “depending on the mission plan, network availability and contingencies,” according to the packet.
The description makes no mention of the Stingrays having any weapons or attacking any targets by themselves. Some of the project’s more vocal supporters may not be happy to hear that.
“I strongly believe the Navy’s first operational unmanned combat aircraft must be capable of performing a broad range of missions … including precision strike,” Arizona senator John McCain, a retired naval aviator, wrote in a letter to the Pentagon on March 24, 2015.
When it asked the Air Force to approve the RAQ-25 nomenclature a year earlier, the Navy had described a wildly different aircraft. The earlier request packet described a drone able to flying spy and strike missions “across the phases of conflict.”
On the one hand were “permissive counter-terrorism operations” such as the Pentagon’s missions in Iraq or Afghanistan. At the other end of the spectrum were “high-end denied operations” against an advanced enemy like Russia or China with powerful radars and deadly, long-range surface-to-air missiles.
The RAQ-25 would be able to fly “24/7” to track specific terrorists or other targets. The X-47B’s ability to refuel in midair theoretically gave it the ability to fly indefinitely — or at least until the engine gave out.
The Navy would use a so-called “remote-split” setup to command the pilotless planes. A crew on the carrier would handle take-offs and landings, while another team — possibly somewhere on land — would actually fly the mission. The Air Force already uses this method for drone missions around the world.
Like the planned MQ-25, the proposed RAQ-25 would have been able to share any intelligence it gathered with other American troops via a satellite link. The description did not offer any details about what sort of gear the drone might have carried in the end.
As of February 2016, the Navy hoped to hire a manufacturer to build the final MQ-25 design in 2018 and get the first drones three years after that.
Plane-makers Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Atomics are all planning to compete for the final contract.
Still, it’s important to note that the Navy is not beholden to the MQ-25’s description — at least not forever. The service could easily decide it wants weapons or other equipment on future versions.
But then it might have to send a new request to the Air Force for yet another name.