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Boeing MQ-25 Stingray (wikipedia.org)
41 points by PopeDotNinja on Nov 1, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments

I don't know if the Boeing's MQ-25 gets to use any of the guidance/navigation systems of Northrup's X-47B but I recall they had to program in some randomness to the plane's landing program because the X-47B was hitting the exact same spot on the deck on every single landing (which was causing concerns about deck maintenance and durability), unlike human pilots which sometimes miss all four wires. Makes me wonder if the form-factor of a carrier can be shrunk since drones can reliably hit much smaller landing spots reliably. Why invest in the massive size and expense of a super carrier when something much smaller can launch and recover fixed wing UAVs to handle ISR? After all, the revolution of aircraft carriers in WW2 was over-the-horizon visual location and attack of enemy shipping; we can do the latter quite easily with guided missiles and UAVs do the former quite nicely.

> Makes me wonder if the form-factor of a carrier can be shrunk since drones can reliably hit much smaller landing spots reliably.

As unmanned aircraft don't need to meet requirements regarding G-force limits on takeoff and landing, I'm sure it would be possible to shrink carriers.

Catapult-launch and arrested recovery will still require significant force handling ability whether there's a human meat bag at the controls or not, but not having a human on board allows for a much more efficient aircraft design (though that designed efficiency would lead to variable designs depending on the mission: endurance/ISR, high-speed/high-G attack, or heavy-lift/cargo/tanker, etc).

Catapult launch could probably be much more forceful and frequent without a mounted H1-A Human.

The human tolerance has never really been a limiting factor. As catapult technology and jet technology has gotten better, we've used the additional thrust to launch heavier, more capable aircraft, rather than increasing the initial launch speed.

True, with newer catapult systems linear motor driven instead of steam driven.

I feel like the age of carriers may be over entirely. They're basically sitting ducks for advanced weaponry and cost a ton of money in manpower and cash to operate. Their role can be supplanted by modern long-range missiles. The only reason to keep them operating in my opinion is for what I call "bravado missions" where we float around contested areas just to show we can.

The Naval Gazing blog has a four-part series called "Why the Carriers Are Not Doomed" in which he makes the case: "Claims that US carriers are very vulnerable to missile attack, and will be sunk immediately in any upcoming war, are quite common. They’re also wrong. The carriers are surprisingly survivable, and the prowess of missiles is usually grossly exaggerated." I don't have the expertise to fully evaluate the arguments, but it's worth a read before you fully swallow the "carriers are pointless because of anti-ship missiles" line.





We've never seen real attacks with today's new generation hypersonic missiles, like the ones that China has. I'm sure they've tested. The time to react is so short, it seems like it will have at least some effect. When they are going miles a second how well will they be able to target? How quickly will the ships be able to start quick movement? I see it as at least a very possible threat. Send a hypersonic missile or 3 every hour and then a series of unmanned fighers like the stingray.

Gee, that's pretty great, but a serious adversary armed with anti-ship missiles is going to use nuclear tipped warheads.

When I say serious, I mean countries with proven nuclear capabilities. Not "limited war" with lesser proxy state dictator adversaries, already bludgeoned by economic sanctions.

And, when I say nuclear tipped warheads, I mean as many as it takes to kill the vessel. Any sane military strategist is going to hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit, and hit the carrier either until it sinks or until everyone onboard and within ten miles is dead.

Even if it takes a solid month of nuclear attacks to starve the crew to death, and melt the deck into slag.

There aren't enough Nimitz class aircraft carriers in the world, NOT to use such tactics.

EDIT: reading the articles, no mention is made of nuclear tipped anti-ship missiles. Probably because it's the article wouldn't be worth writing, if they openly acknowledged that angle, and thus would not generate ad revenue.

If someone attacks with nuclear missiles or torpedoes that's going to be the end of the world, and we are going to attack back with same. I don't think there will be 20 waves. I think there will be massive destruction and then just a few big ships left. But hopefully we'll never find out.

Floating, remote operating bases that can move to provide persistent support are still pretty important if you want to hold territory. Long-range missiles can hit an objective, but I'm not sure we really have long-loiter-capable assets to just go around in a circle and provide a similar capability to a carrier. Furthermore, I can't imagine the cost of some future-whatever RAMjet craziness that would get closer to carrier-level strike times, but I'm just an armchair strategist. A cost comparison would certainly be interesting!

I feel that you're really overselling the vulnerability of what is fundamentally a spec on a featureless ocean that can move at 50 km/h in any direction indefinitely. There's a pretty comprehensive summary of anti-carrier strategies in this series https://www.navalgazing.net/Carrier-Doom-Part-1

Carriers are important because they provide the ability to launch and resupply aircraft, which is critical to seize and maintain control of the enemy's airspace. Long-range missiles do nothing to control airspace. They let you hit enemies far away but do nothing to stop enemies from hitting your guys or cut your supply lines.

I understand what you're saying, but in an actual conflict with a modern nation I'd argue that the role you describe would be hard to fulfill when the carrier is targeted by any number of modern armaments and is quickly relocated to the ocean floor.

Your assumption here is that actual conflict with a modern nation using conventional weaponry is possible, perhaps the majority of conflicts we have and/or the conflict we should prepare for, and will last more than the flight time of Nuclear warheads.

I would argue that future conflicts are either proxy conflicts against less equipped forces (see Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, conflicts with limited, focused objectives (Secure a piece of ground that is critical, say the Straits of Hormuz), and existential conflict that results in nuclear war.

If it gets to the point that we are in "actual conflict" that is existential (meaning in this case specifically American survival depends on it) with a "modern nation" (I'm assuming you're talking about somebody that has nuclear weapons and a relatively developed nation state - say, China, Russia?) it would be difficult to avoid considering nuclear weapons.

As a result, Aircraft Carriers might be the weapon we continue to use most as a practical matter, with our strategic arsenal backstop still in place.

Probably doomsaying, but it's difficult to see it shaking out another way. I'm not saying we go straight to warheads, but anything more than testing each side in a way that leads to a negotiation likely escalates quickly.

Which platforms are going to do the targeting and how long does it take for the weapons to arrive? Carriers don't just sit in one spot waiting to get hit.

"Which platforms are going to do the targeting..."

These are called "ISR" (intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance) platforms and among the forces afloat these could be the E-2C, SH-60B, "other aircraft," and drones.

"How long does it takes for weapons to arrive?"

Is mach 3.5 fast enough for you? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RIM-174_Standard_ERAM

I mean, lots of nukes with 30 min travel time and 20-30 mile kill radius. Lots of new cruise missiles with mid flight trajectory correction. Dont need to hit a carrier if you can airburst a 1MT nuke 10 miles away to get a kill.

Have you heard of mutual assured destruction?

I mean, if we're talking about wars where adversaries have capabilities of attacking carriers, then those wars necessarily include nuclear weapons. The best we can hope is that those weapons are not used against too many cities.

While that is correct, I'd argue that the military value lies more in force projection than actual force itself. Sure it's predicted that if the US were to enter into a proper engagement with either China or Russia that every carrier on the seven seas would be under water within a few hours.

Within those few hours however those carrier groups could deal a good bit of damage. That threat of force is an effective tool in maintaining the peace and keeping the world stage from getting too exciting. This tool is even more applicable with regard to organisations or states that lack the capacity to effectively engage the US Navy with even a slim chance of standing their ground.

> While that is correct, I'd argue that the military value lies more in force projection than actual force itself. Sure it's predicted that if the US were to enter into a proper engagement with either China or Russia that every carrier on the seven seas would be under water within a few hours.

> Within those few hours however those carrier groups could deal a good bit of damage.

I just don't buy this argument.

1. As you admit, carriers are really only good against poor nations. But lots of ships are good against poor nations: patrol boats, destroyers, etc. These other ships are _way_ less expensive to build and operate.

Ultimately, air power just isn't very useful against most of the US's modern adversaries. Yes - air power can destroy targets, but that just doesn't seem to have much of a long term positive political effect.

2. I'm not convinced that carriers can do much damage in a suicide strike. Non-NATO countries have been very busy over the last few decades creating really good SAMs. The S-400 is a great example of this - much more effective than the patriot. Russia has been pretty aggressive about giving their military systems a chance to be tested in combat zones.

I'm sure someone will talk about 5th gen fighters and how great their stealth is. Maybe. But the SAMs are getting much better at penetrating that stealth by using sophisticated integrated anti-air systems, and by using a broad spectrum of radar. They may not be there yet, but in 10-15 years? It's at least an open question.

3. I don't think they'd get even 1 hour. The modern space race has widely dispersed the technology for creating ballistic missiles. There is no effective defense against them.

1. If carriers are only good against poor nations, why are most of the worlds navies buying, building and deploying them? China, USA, Britain, France, Japan, S.Korea, Italy, Spain? Just following an outdated fashion? Or perhaps they realize that nothing is more important in modern, high intensity warfare than airpower?

2. SAMs are pretty much useless for the foreseeable future against stealth fighters. Until that's resolved, carriers and airpower will reign supreme.

3. You're vastly overestimating ASBMs, the corresponding targeting systems, and underestimating how the US will handle them.

> when the carrier is targeted by any number of modern armaments and is quickly relocated to the ocean floor.

I assume carriers aren't required to remain operational perpetually. They are instrumental to ensure the attacker has enough air power to support an invasion and once they gain a foothold then air operations are shifted to airfields.

Maybe drones will let aircraft carriers shrink enough for submarine aircraft carriers to be practical? They won't have to worry as much about missiles...

Big ole 747s in the sky. Bunch of air launched drones.

I believe this to be an absolute game changer (is used as I think it can be). Currently we have several forward air bases and stations in the Middle East. I think some of that may be so that we can have aerial tankers there (KC-135s, KC-10s). Because we want to refuel things in mid-air, we need need tankers over there. Because we need tankers over there, we need air bases. Because we need air bases in certain countries, we must maintain reasonable diplomatic relations with said countries -- even when our humanitarian or other policies are at opposite ends of the spectrum. I think that by having carrier based tankers we could de-couple from some of these countries with some of these bases. I think can can, potentially, lead to a very different strategic approach.

Carrier based tankers will be dependent on underway replenishment for the supply of the said fuel, and they will be insanely expensive to run. You will need a whole carrier battle group with it's escort and stuff to replace about 1-2 KC-10s (depending on the mission radius [1] - and yeah, the top mission radius of this thing will be abysmal, not even 1/3 of KC-10 and at best half of KC-135).

This is just to increase the range of carrier based aircraft. Avoid putting carriers too much in the harm's way.

[1] https://fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/bomber/kc_comp.gif

The idea of a new system allowing the USA to move troops closer to home or somehow ratchet back the number of bases we have is pretty naive. It's possible of course, but it would be the first time that ever happened with a new tech since the 1930s.

This is true for strategic strike (a bomber has the space for crew rest) and an absolute godsend for the Navy (CVW have lacked real organic tank options since the retirement of the S-3- note that CVW ASW is another mission where drones could be dramatic improvements) but I don't think that this will enable something as dramatic as a pull-out of Al Udeid. No one is going to want to be in a F-22 or F-35 for a combat flight from Diego Garcia to Mosul, and US strategic strike components are so limited that I can't see them bearing the full burden of something like OIR.

>Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) is the U.S. military's operational name for the military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

You'd need a much larger drone (volume wise) to carry sonobuoys. MAD gear is out of fashion so at least you don't have to compromise the airframe with that. I can't see a drone carrying a MK48 either.

Is ASW something the US military cares at all about anymore?

Carrier-based tanker aircraft aren't a new concept - the US Navy had dedicated tanker aircraft starting in 1967 with the KA-3B[1], and later the KA-6D[2], and finally the S-3[3] (initially an ASW aircraft, but used mostly for the tanker mission by the end of its service life).

The lack of a dedicated carrier-based tanker aircraft is an unusual anomaly that's being worked around at great cost by pressing FA/18E/F aircraft into service as part-time tankers.

At its core, this will fix a regression in capability vs. unlocking significant new capability.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_A-3_Skywarrior#Variant...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grumman_A-6_Intruder#KA-6D

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_S-3_Viking

Marines had the KA-6D as well.

Runway-launched refueling tankers will always be superior to carrier-launched refueling planes.

Diplomatic relations with questionable regimes for the purpose of securing runways and supply lines for aerial refueling tankers will almost always be cheaper--in terms of both cash and international reputation--than building carriers (including the carrier-group support craft), training Navy crews, and deploying the carrier fleets to the desired operating theaters.

A carrier-launched refueling drone is not a cure-all. It fills a specific mission niche better than the existing alternatives.

The F/A-18 Super Hornet already fulfills the carrier-based refueling role with an external Aerial Refueling System.


That's true, but a Super Hornet is an incredibly expensive platform to use as an aerial tanker. Quote from https://www.historyonthenet.com/carrier-based-aerial-refueli...:

The Super Hornet has filled in the tactical tanker role the Navy lost with the retirement of these older tankers. The problem with using the Super Hornet as a tanker is that on typical missions a fifth of the air wing is dedicated to the tanker role, which consumes aircraft fatigue life expectancy much more quickly than other missions. In 2016 a fleet-experienced naval flight officer said, “The Navy has painted itself into a corner with Super Hornet tankers. The mission eats up fatigue life at a ridiculous rate, and there is something really, really stupid about using your most capable strike platform as a tanker.” Because “classic” Hornets, through the FA-18D, did not carry a “buddy store” refueling pack, later-model Hornets are required. But the tanker mission badly eroded the Super Hornet’s six thousand-hour airframe life, further reducing availability, since FA-18Es typically spend 25 percent of their time tanking.

We keep nukes there too (for better or worse)

The planning and project management aspect sounds like it's straight out of a post apocalyptic bureaucratic nightmare.

It was intended to be a strike drone, but wait, let's flip the project halfway through into an intelligence drone. You know what? f*ck it, let's flip it into a refuelling drone.

The project history is a sinuous cautionary tale of scope creep and descoping.

Positioning it as a tanker is a smart move. Taking on the least glamorous job helps keeping the scope down, lower expectations, provide value from day 1. It's what they should have aimed for in the first place.

While you might be right, is it not also possible that they delivered some key capabilities that were unique (autonomous carrier landing!?) to reach the strike objective, realized it wouldn't meet all of them so pivoted to ISR (of which I recall there being a shortage of assets so maybe more demand with other strike programs going on in 2012?) then looked to the tanker mission after realizing there were other things that it maybe couldn't do as well as other platforms for the ISR purpose?

In startup language you might say the team "pivoted"?

I'm not saying that's what happened here as bureaucracy often causes these nightmares, but it's possible there were a lot of good intentions / approaches at play as well.

reminds me of the Bradley IFV and this sequence from the Pentagon Wars


There was a lot of contention with this at first, but the Navy decided their first carrier based UAV / UAS would be a tanker to simply extend the range of their existing fighter / bomber fleet instead of outright replacing it. This seems to be a very good move as it simply lengthens to the reach of the existing airpower.

As someone else said it's a move to appease Congress -- but also the Air Bosses who lose several of their F-18s to tanker duty as well as the F-18 crews who HATE the tanker duty. I imagine the E-2D crews will be cautiously watching to see just how much ISR gear will be fitted to the MQ-25 in the name of "since it's on board, and since it's going to do a lot of loitering aloft while waiting to tank someone about to bingo, let's see how well it does in a limited ISR role..."

After that it will be "What if we put a Wescam Ball and AESA array on an MQ-25?" At that point the E-2D program will be in jeopardy.

UAVs will have a hard time in a doing AEW since array size is very important. Also, the crew of the E2s do quite a bit of the work, stuff that can't be automated. And when operating under EMCON, the value of an E2 is even higher.

It's a move meant to appease Congress by not saving money on unmanned weapons systems. The Pentagon has killed UAV programs that performed too well.

The robots are coming for our jobs!

How long before there's some kind of drop-in "drone pilot" array to retrofit existing aircraft (e.g. the Super Hornet) such that they operate unmanned? Not only would the handling not be restricted by human anatomy, but the large time/financial investment in pilot training wouldn't be at risk of being lost should an incident occur.

> How long before there's some kind of drop-in "drone pilot" array to retrofit existing aircraft (e.g. the Super Hornet) such that they operate unmanned?

They do that already to make target drones out of old aircraft:


Random, but I wonder why they went with the MQ designation instead of KQ for this.

Is it just me or is $804 mil for a capability like this incredibly cheap?

yeah, I noticed that too. the entire program cost about the same as a single B2 Spirit aircraft.

The industry is pretty certain Boeing is taking a loss on this contract in order to secure additional future contracts for the platform.

I can't tell if this is a drone that knows how to be refueled in the air, or if it is a drone that actually provides refueling to other aircraft. Clue?

It doesn't seem big enough to hold much fuel.

This performs refueling for another aircraft in need of fuel.

Talk about scope creep on a project, wow

seems useful for the types of support we recently provided the saudis in yemen. this tech would lower the marginal cost of providing that type of support significantly. doubt taxpayers will claw any of that back, though :|

A tool of imperial violence - extending the US military's abilities to conduct offenses thousands of miles from its own sovereign territory.

Shame on those who made it.

It’s likely that your work and life has greatly benefited from technologies that originated from the military.

That's true, but:

1. My life (and more so, the life of many around me) has greatly suffered from the operation of military bodies. 2. Those technologies could have, instead, been developed in civilian spaces, had the world, especially the great powers, not been so militarized. We might have had some difference in emphasis in what technologies get developed faster of course.

Do you use the internet? GPS? Where do you think those technologies come from?

The entirety of human history is one of conflict. Do you believe this is now at an end? Do you believe there are any prospective military threats to the US in the next 30 years? And if so, from where?

> The entirety of human history is one of conflict.

Oh, that's even better than that other quote of yours:

"If two irreconcilable elements are struggling with each other, the solution lies in force. There has never been any other solution in history, and there never will be."

Eh, Mr. Mussolini ?

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