Recently, the U.S. Navy scrapped plans for a carrier-based armed drone aircraft in favor of their new MQ-25 Stingray program. Instead of carrying ordnance aboard the unmanned vehicles, the MQ-25 will serve as a refueler that helps to extend the operational range of fighters like the Block III F/A-18 Super Hornet and the F-35C naval variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. With nations like China fielding hypersonic anti-ship missiles the U.S. currently has no means of defense against, stretching the range of Navy fighters has become the focus of multiple defense initiatives that each hope to bring carriers back into the fight if ever a conflict between the U.S. and a nation like China were to break out.
Boeing ultimately won the contract for the MQ-25, likely in large part because they already had an operational technology demonstrator to show the Navy thanks to their previous UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) efforts. Lockheed Martin’s proposal, on the other hand, could be characterized as a “paper plane,” as in a potentially capable platform that, to date, exists only on paper. Undeterred by the Navy’s choosing Boeing, however, Lockheed has now turned to another potential customer for their MQ-25 pitch: the U.S. Air Force.
The Air Force is currently moving to replace its dated fleet of KC-10 and KC-135 tanker aircraft with the updated Boeing 767 based KC-46 Pegasus, but according to internal Air Force documents, the branch does not believe a new fleet of large refuelers is all they need to stay capable in the air battles of tomorrow. In particular, the Air Force has concerns about long range flight operations inside contested airspace, where the massive Pegasus dares not travel.
Lockheed isn’t crazy to think their MQ-25 proposal may find a home in Air Force hangars. Two years ago, the head of the Air Force’s mobility command, General Carlton Everhart said the branch’s second future refueler (dubbed the KC-Z) “might be a smallish unmanned autonomous vehicle that could penetrate an anti-access, area-denial system along with F-35s and other stealth combat aircraft.” Those requirements are not unlike the effort for a stealthy Navy UCAV that transitioned into the MQ-25 refueler program.
Lockheed already presented their MQ-25 concept to the Navy as one of a number of potential future variants of their stealthy platform that was first envisioned as an offensive asset within contested air space. That background could prove valuable to the Air Force who would expect their KC-Z to be able to fly inside hostile air space in order to support long range operations in a future conflict over Europe or Asia.
It isn’t currently clear whether or not the Air Force would prefer their next refuelers to be as small as Lockheed’s MQ-25 proposal, but Jack O’Banion, the Vice President of Strategy at Lockeed’s Skunk Works believes they could help make America’s airborne defense strategy more robust and resilient to enemy attack.
“They’re [the Chinese] trying to find out where are there integrating nodes in our force structure that they can attack, whether it’s the overhead [satellites], or AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control Systems] or [E-8C] JSTARS [Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems] or tankers,” O’Banion told Aviation Week. “One of the easiest ways to defeat that strategy is disbursement, so if I can disperse the fuel … it’s harder to defeat the ability to fuel my assets and stay in the fight.”