UAVs can enhance carrier airwing range and numbers to address A2/AD threats

Boeing’s MQ-25A Stingray UAV, currently developed as a refuelling aircraft.

Integrating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with manned aviation can increase an aircraft carrier’s operational range and strike aircraft numbers in an operating environment where there is a need to ‘push in’ through greater anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats, a senior official from Boeing told the recent UK Government-led Pacific Future Forum conference (20-21 October) onboard the Royal Navy’s HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carrier at HM Naval Base Portsmouth, UK.

“Some of the weapons systems our peer competitors are using push the carrier outside the range that we normally operate our aircraft,” Michael Manazir, Boeing’s vice-president for global sales and marketing, and a former US Navy (USN) rear admiral and aviator told the conference.

Such weapons systems include emerging technologies including hypersonic missiles and established technologies such as anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles. While carrier airwings and pilots have procedures and tactics to enable operations inside expanding A2/AD threat ‘rings’, “it goes without saying that we need a longer reach for the carrier airwing,” Manazir continued.

He explained that unmanned system operational concepts have evolved to increase integration with manned aircraft to extend carrier capabilities, enhancing manned aircraft range and numbers through providing tanking capability, and offering increased sensor coverage in the future.

Boeing’s MQ-25A Stingray UAV, currently developed as a refuelling aircraft, “is designed to optimise persistent unmanned tanking capability and increase the reach of the carrier airwing”, said Manazir. Operated from a control station on a carrier or from an airborne platform, the MQ-25A “can extend the reach of the airwing a couple of thousand miles”, he continued. “So, the carrier can safely sit outside the range of those anti-ship missiles, and we can push our pilots in … by refuelling just outside the ‘ring’.”

As regards adding numbers, Manazir explained, “Currently, on the flight deck [of a USN carrier], six F-18 fighters carry the refuelling stores and are configured as tankers.” Giving the refuelling role to the MQ-25A “adds six F-18s to the strike force”.

Manazir indicated that sensing capability might enable MQ-25As to operate as ‘wingmen’ for manned aircraft, forming up as “an extension of [the] aircraft”. “These unmanned aircraft can be feeding back information. Let’s say we spread [three] unmanned aircraft out: let’s say each one is 25 miles from one of the others or [the fighter aircraft]; now, I am opening up 100 miles of battlefront [with one manned aircraft],” he explained. “The aircraft can control that battlefront based on what is coming through those systems.”

by Dr. Lee Willett