The United States Navy needs to make some hard choices if it wishes to remain relevant in the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) security environment that lies ahead of it. It must begin to adjust its strategy as well as its accompanying shipbuilding and aircraft-procurement plans to enable it to fight and win within the emerging great-power competition. This new environment, at last recognized in President Trump’s National Security Strategy and the Secretary of Defense’s National Defense Strategy, requires the Navy to strike enemy capitals and other vital centers of gravity from range, but the Navy’s decision to bypass a carrier-based strike asset, and now even to push off its acquisition of an unmanned mission tanker, suggest that it is not taking A2AD great-power competition seriously. Its decisions place the future relevance of the entire maritime service, at least as it is presently composed, at risk.
The modern Navy is built around the “super carrier.” Carriers, which the Navy had from the 1920s through the early 1950s, launched light fighters and attack aircraft that could carry small loads of ordnance short distances to targets. However, in World War II the Navy lost numerous ships and carriers to Japanese bombs and kamikaze attacks because the short range of U.S. Navy aircraft pulled the ships that carried them in closer to targets, which also placed the ships within range of Japanese aircraft. Navy leaders such as Vice Admirals Marc Mitscher and John S. “Slew” McCain realized that the Navy needed longer-ranged aircraft to allow commanders to keep their ships safely away from enemy shores while still enabling Navy aircraft to reach critical targets ashore.
Longer distances meant larger aircraft that were capable of carrying more fuel and more ordnance. Larger aircraft, in turn, led to larger carriers to launch and land them. Hence super carriers were built in the early 1950s, allowing the Navy to participate fully in the emerging Cold War. The average unrefueled range of the aircraft embarked on super carriers during the 1950s was over 1,200 miles, allowing those aircraft to conduct missions deep into the Soviet Union, but somehow in the post–Cold War generation the Navy forgot the lessons of World War II and, by retiring long-range aircraft such as the F-14 Tomcat, A-6 Intruder, and A-3 Skywarrior without analogous replacements, allowed the average strike range of the aircraft embarked on the super carriers to decline to less than 500 miles, pulling the super carriers back into the threat range of those who would make themselves enemies of the United States.
The Navy had an opportunity to reverse this trend over the past decade when it defined requirements for what it described as the “Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator,” or UCAS-D. The requirements requested an autonomous low-observable unmanned vehicle capable of operation in and around the carrier air wing. This effort produced two unmanned 44,000-lb. X-47B prototype aircraft that could launch from a super carrier’s deck, carry 4,500 lb. of ordnance to targets over 1,000 miles away, and then return to land on the carrier, autonomously. These two all-aspect broadband stealth prototypes (meaning that, ideally, they will not show up on radar at any frequency and from any direction) successfully took off and landed from the carrier and even participated in midair refueling tests. The path seemed clear towards evolution and development of a larger 60,000- to 70,000-lb. aircraft capable of operating within A2AD environments while flying over 2,000 miles and carrying approximately 6,000 lb. of ordnance. It would have been a true deep-strike asset analogous to the A-3 Skywarrior, which served as the justification for the original super carrier design. But then the Navy altered its course.
One day, as the fictional Forrest Gump once said, “for no particular reason,” the Navy decided to abandon its focus on unmanned deep strike and shift its prioritization towards an unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft. The Gumpian “no particular reason” quote is applicable because the Navy already had sufficient unmanned intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance within its land-based unmanned MQ-4C Triton program, which was purchased in sufficient quantities to provide surveillance for the carrier strike groups at sea. So there was no emerging requirement to drive the Navy towards a carrier-based ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) asset. Fortunately, senior civilian leadership within the Department of Defense stepped in and refocused the Navy on adding range to the carrier air wing, and a compromise was reached to create the MQ-25 Stingray mission-tanker program, designed specifically for mid-air refueling. Unfortunately, there is room for disappointment even there.
The Navy stated that it needed a new tanker aircraft to relieve stress on the FA-18E/F Super Hornet inventory, which had been serving in the tanker role since the retirement of KA-3 and KA-6 aircraft — planes that served as long-range, deep-strike platforms but whose designs allowed easy retasking as tankers — over the past generation. Super Hornets serving in a tanker role carry up to five external fuel tanks, which exert additional stresses on their wing structures, causing the aircraft to use up their “wing-life” ahead of schedule. Given that the Navy’s higher-than-normal operational tempo supporting counterterrorism wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was already burning through its aircraft inventory at an accelerated rate, the need to relieve strain on the finite force by creating a purpose-built mission tanker was clear. However, this decision was in contradiction with lessons of the past, which leveraged serving deep-strike aircraft to serve in an auxiliary role as mission tankers. By creating a purpose-built mission tanker without regard to the potential for evolution into an unmanned deep-strike asset, the Navy missed an opportunity.
By creating a purpose-built mission tanker without regard to the potential for evolution into an unmanned deep-strike asset, the Navy missed an opportunity.
There is also a point to be made in that the requirements delineated by the Navy for the new MQ-25 aircraft fall short even in the area of mission tanking, the aircraft’s primary mission. Mission tanking is supposed to be focused on maximizing the range of the super carrier’s lethal air wing, but naval-aviation leaders stated that the MQ-25 would be required to be able to provide only 15,000 lb. of fuel 500 miles from the carrier. To be sure, this would effectively double the range of two of the carrier’s inventory of FA-18E/F Super Hornets. Four MQ-25s, the desired complement on the flight deck, would double the range of eight Super Hornets. And that would be a good thing if the Super Hornet were projected to be the primary aircraft penetrating advanced A2AD environments, but it’s not. That job is expected to be assigned to the new F-35C Lightning II aircraft, which is currently entering the fleet. If the MQ-25 had been optimized to maximize the range of the F-35C, we would have expected the requirement to be for the Stingray to provide approximately 17,000 lb. of fuel at the 500- to 600-mile range from the aircraft, so clearly there is a problem. Fortunately, there is an opportunity to correct this oversight.
The Navy seems to be moving forward with its head down, focused on internal issues of competition between the services and force structure, seemingly oblivious to the rapidly changing strategic environment around it.
For some reason, despite the obvious statement of importance assigned to great-power competition and balancing capabilities and capacity in the face of A2AD challenges in recent strategic documents, the Navy has assigned little priority to the development and production of the MQ-25 aircraft, which is placed at the far end of the current five-year budget and not expected to reach initial operational capability until 2026. Perhaps this is because the original impetus for the mission-tanker program, the need to relieve pressure on the Super Hornet inventory, has been relieved by congressional decisions to restart the FA-18E/F production line. In fact, the Navy seems so comfortable with its fighter-attack-aircraft inventory that it has made the decision to retire or “strike” 140 older aircraft ahead of schedule to avoid the higher costs associated with maintaining them. Perhaps the Navy is unsure of whether it needs an unmanned tanker at all, or perhaps it wishes to forestall its final commitment to the program until it has come to a better understanding of its future requirements.
Regardless, the Navy seems to be moving forward with its head down, focused on internal issues of competition between the services and force structure, seemingly oblivious to the rapidly changing strategic environment around it. It proceeds based upon assumptions that it will continue to operate its ships in permissive environments, with no serious threats to their survival, and that, by extension, its short-range, light-attack aircraft will continue to be able to reach key targets without fear of lethal threat and attrition. These assumptions could not be farther from the truth. Over the next decade the United States will enter a period of maximum danger during which its own weaknesses, due to a generation of underinvestment and an interlude of passive “lead from behind” diplomacy, will be amplified even as its enemies, now recognized in China and Russia, reach their own critical junctures wherein their power will be at a zenith prior to facing their own rising internal fiscal and demographic issues. These moments of conflicting weakness and strength are historically associated with the outbreak of wars.
The nation’s civilian leadership needs to step in and assert control over a Navy that is badly off course. Tanking is not the issue, and the MQ-25 program as currently configured ought to be canceled. Tanking can be performed by new Super Hornets coming off the production line or even by taking the 80 S-3B aircraft with significant wing life left that are sitting in the Davis-Monthan AFB “boneyard” in Arizona and returning them to the fleet to serve in their previous role as tankers. The real strategic challenge facing the Navy is a requirement for penetrating deep strike from the carrier deck. The Navy needs a new aircraft to perform this mission. Given the mission profile, a range of 1,000 to 1,500 miles out and then back, the density of A2AD surface-to-air defenses, and the ten-hour-plus flight duration, the aircraft should probably be unmanned. The Navy should not forget the lessons of World War II that Admirals Mitscher and McCain wrote down after they lost multiple carriers while operating well inside Japan’s then-advanced A2AD environment. At $12.9 billion apiece, our modern carriers are too dear to the force fiscally and strategically to risk against the current threat.
The Navy would be well served if it were directed to return and review the requirements associated with the UCAS-D program ten years ago and refocus its efforts on creating a new unmanned, all-aspect stealth aircraft that is capable of operating from the carrier deck and hitting targets deep inside enemy territory. If the Navy does not take these steps, it will risk allowing its carrier force and, in fact, its entire accompanying surface fleet, to lapse into strategic irrelevance.