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History Made: F-35 Stealth Fighters Can Refuel from Drone Tanker

F-35C
CF-3 FLT 255 USS Dwight D. Eisenhower on 06 OCT 2015. CBR Ted Dyckman was flying CF-3 Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, Lockheed Martin Photography by Andrew McMurtrie

A recent in-flight refueling test highlighted how far the Navy has come in stealthy manned-unmanned pairings.

The United States Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray tanker drone refueled an F-35C Lightning II, a first for the carrier-based drone. Although the flight did not occur off of a carrier flattop, it was an important validation of the Stingray’s interoperability with the United States’ premiere stealth fighter.

“During the three-hour flight, a Navy F-35C pilot from Air Test Wing and Evaluation Squadron Two Three (VX-23) approached T1, performed formation evaluations, wake surveys, drogue tracking and plugged with the MQ-25 test asset at 225 knots calibrated airspeed (KCAS) and altitude of 10,000 feet,” the Navy’s statement on the event said. “From the ground control station, an air vehicle operator then initiated the fuel transfer from T1’s aerial refueling store to the F-35C.” The event was the third time the Stingray had conducted an in-flight refuel.

As the MQ-25 Stingray has already refueled other Navy aircraft via its relatively simple probe-and-drogue refueling system, this test was more for evaluating how the F-35C interacted with the MQ-25 Singray’s wake rather than evaluating the feasibility of the Stingray’s refueling system.

Into the Future

The MQ-25 is the United States Navy’s first unmanned carrier-capable tanker, and as such, will fill a critical role for the sailing service by extending the combat ranges of all carrier aircraft, including stealthy 5th generations fighters like the F-35C and F-35B as well as the Navy’s 4th generation fighters like the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

More importantly, however, unmanned inflight tanking is one of the United States’ early mixed manned-unmanned initiatives integrating semi-autonomous or remote-controlled platforms with manned fighters.

One of the more notable programs of record in this area is the Air Force’s Skyborg program, which would pair armed and “smart” or autonomous unpiloted drones with 5th generation fighters, acting as pilots’ eyes and ears in contested environments. Though a human pilot would remain in the loop, Skyborg Drones would be able to assess threats in the air and on the ground and decide how to best deal with these threats.

Postscript

“Every T1 flight with another Type/Model/Series aircraft gets us one step closer to rapidly delivering a fully mission-capable MQ-25 to the fleet,” a Navy’s program manager explained. “Stingray’s unmatched refueling capability is going to increase the Navy’s power projection and provide operational flexibility to the carrier strike group commanders.” Though the Navy’s manned-unmanned pairing programs are still in their infancy, the United States is on the cusp of arguably one of the most significant advancements in warfare in the past hundred years.

F-35

A U.S. Navy F-35C, U.S. Air Force F-35A, and U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II sit on the flight line at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, in support of Northern Edge 2021, May 7, 2021. Approximately 15,000 U.S. service members are participating in a joint training exercise hosted by U.S. Pacific Air Forces May 3-14, 2021, on and above the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, the Gulf of Alaska, and temporary maritime activities area. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Duncan C. Bevan)

U.S. Marines F-35C

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (Jan. 24, 2019) U.S. Navy Lt. Daniel “Crib” Armenteros, piloting an F-35C Lightning II assigned to Naval Air Station China Lake’s Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine (VX-9), conducts the first live-fire test of an AIM-120 missile released from an operational Joint Strike Fighter. The advanced medium-range air-to-air Missile was released from the aircraft’s internal weapons storage bay over a controlled sea test range in the Pacific Ocean as part of efforts by the 412th Test Wing and Joint Operational Test Team at Edwards Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Christopher Okula/RELEASED)

F-35C

190227-N-SB520-166 Ten F-35C Lightning II jets of the “Argonauts” of VFA-147 aircraft sit on the flight line at Naval Air Station Lemoore (NASL). Commander, Naval Air Forces, Vice Admiral DeWolfe Miller H. III and United States Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation (DCA), Lieutenant General Steven R. Rudder jointly announced that the F-35C met all requirements and achieved Initial Operating Capability (IOC) 28FEB. Achieving IOC means the F-35C is available to be used in deployed environments as requested by combatant commanders. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Manuel Tiscareno/Released)

Caleb Larson is a multimedia and defense journalist based in Europe. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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