Lockheed Martin has finally unveiled concept images of their forthcoming carrier launched tanker drone that hopes to help extend the flight range of America’s Naval aircraft. Lockheed’s Advanced Development Programs, also known as Skunk Works, hopes their flying-wing refueler will beat out the likes of Boeing and General Atomics for the lucrative drone contract.

The United States Navy has been placing a significant emphasis, and allocating significant funds, to resolving an operational gap between America’s fleet of carrier-launched aircraft and the range permitted by new anti-ship missiles being fielded by near-peer competitors like Russia and China. Most of the aircraft launched from the U.S. Navy’s fleet of Nimitz and Ford class supercarriers, the most potent military extension of U.S. foreign policy, have an operational range of only about 500 miles. However, with some nations fielding hypersonic capable anti-ship cruise missiles boasting ranges in excess of a thousand miles, the pressing need to extend the fuel range of carrier-based aircraft has become the emphasis of multiple technological and procedure based efforts Navy-wide.

In effect, the U.S. Navy needs to find a way to make their aircraft fly far enough that the carriers themselves can remain outside the range of enemy anti-ship missiles. Programs are underway to develop field expedient re-fuel and re-fit landing sites for the forthcoming F-35C, which would involve sending heavy payload helicopters ahead to scout and establish landing sites within anti-ship missile range, letting the F-35 depart from carriers, conduct their missions, and then land on grass strips to be either refueled for their rest of the trip back, or refitted with munitions to carry on further combat operations.

Boeing is also about to begin an extensive refit of Navy and Marine Corps Super Hornets to the Block III variant, which will include conformal fuel tanks that hug the fuselage of the aircraft and potentially extend its operational range by as much as hundreds of miles.

However, landing the most advanced fighter ever built on strips of grass inside enemy controlled territory and bolting new fuel tanks to the sides of existing fighters both can help offset the capability gap created by anti-ship missiles, but only a reliable means of refueling aircraft mid-flight can truly extend the operational range of Navy fighters and bombers sufficiently to make America’s longstanding method of air-superiority warfare continue to be viable in a twenty-first century conflict.

Enter the MQ-25 drone project. The new images Lockheed has released of how their entry is to look evokes images of Lockheed’s previous plans for a carrier based reconnaissance aircraft, the Sea Ghost, though lacking in the stealth capabilities emphasized in a surveillance drone that would live portions of its operational lifespan inside contested territory. Instead, the MQ-25 will serve as an unarmed refueler that should rarely, if ever, find itself inside contested airspace.

Lockheed Martin’s Sea Ghost concept left, MQ-25 Concept right. (Lockheed Martin photos)

 

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The  holdover of the Sea Ghost’s wing-shape, however, offers significant benefits over a more traditional aircraft shape in terms of refueler carrying capacity. A flying wing design, like that employed by the storied B-2 spirit, is both aerodynamically sound and offers fewer total parts and a smaller footprint on the carrier’s flight deck than a different design might require – all while offering more payload space within the aircraft’s hull.

There are, however, significant differences between the Sea Ghost and the MQ-25 design, meaning it might be more appropriate to say that the MQ-25 drone design was inspired by what seemed to be effective on the Sea Ghost, rather than calling the new drone a retooled version of an old craft.

The basic requirements Lockheed and other competitors need to fill in order to be selected for the Navy contract include the ability to deliver about 15,000 pounds of fuel to aircraft located 500 miles from the carrier. It is expected, however, that most of the entries will offer some level of modular upgradability, allowing the drone craft to be refit as time goes on to adapt to new mission requirements and potentially even fill the surveillance role the Sea Ghost once hoped to claim.

Artists rendering of a MQ-25 taking off from a carrier. (Lockheed Martin)

“If you start with a vehicle shape that will allow it to penetrate into a contested environment, you can get a low-cost tanking capability upfront without putting all the capability into that vehicle. … You can do it at low cost but stay on that same path to use that vehicle design to operate in a penetrating environment,” Skunk Work’s Rob Weiss said during Lockheed Martin’s 2016 Media Day.

Whether Lockheed’s flying wing design or the more traditional in appearance entries from Boeing or General Atomics ultimately wins the contract, the Navy hopes to begin purchasing completed platforms by 2023, and wants to see the craft considered combat operational by 2026. With $719 million allocated to the project in the fiscal year 2019 budget alone, it’s clear that the Navy wants to bridge the gap between aircraft and anti-ship missile ranges sooner rather than later.

Images courtesy of Lockheed Martin