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How the F-35 Will Become Even Deadlier (Thanks to Drone Tankers)

F-35C Drone Refuel
A U.S Marine Corps F-35C Lightning II with Marine Wing Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) lands on Marine Air Station Miramar, Calif., May 11 , 2020. The F-35C will give 3rd MAW a technological advantage by bringing the next wave of 5th generation fighter jets to the Marine Corps. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt Dominic Romero)

For the first time ever, the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker conducted an aerial refueling with an F-35C Joint Strike Fighter.

“Boeing’s T1 test aircraft and an F-35C from the Navy’s Air Test Wing and Evaluation Squadron 23 conducted a three-hour mission on September 13, taking off from the MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois, and then going through a methodical process of linking up and refueling in this test environment,” according to a report by Defense News.

“The Navy pilot conducted surveys and evaluations of the unmanned aircraft and the air around it before connecting with its drogue at two hundred twenty-five knots and ten thousand feet altitude. An air vehicle operator at the ground control station then initiated the fuel transfer from T1’s aerial refueling store to the F-35C,” it added.

Mission-Capable MQ-25

Navy program manager Capt. Chad Reed noted in a news release that “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.”

He continued: “Stingray’s unmatched refueling capability is going to increase the Navy’s power projection and provide operational flexibility to the carrier strike group commanders.”

This particular refueling success came on the heels of a six-hour test flight that was conducted last month. Once again, for the first time, the MQ-25 refueled an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye.

“Once operational, the MQ-25 will refuel every receiver-capable platform including E-2,” Reed said in a separate news release.

“This flight keeps us on a fast track to getting the Stingray out to the fleet where its refueling capability will greatly increase the range and operational flexibility of the carrier air wing and strike group,” he continued.

Carrier Air Wing of the Future

Defense News also reported that just last month, “the Navy and Boeing conducted in a virtual environment the first manned-unmanned teaming event between the Stingray and a Super Hornet, where the manned jet bypassed the ground control station and communicated directly with the tanker drone to give directions on where and when to rendezvous for a refueling.”

According to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday at the Defense News Conference, these tests are “really our first foray into the carrier air wing of the future, understanding how we integrate it and how we leverage it, how we’re going to use unmanned and manned together in a way that’s going to be quite effective.”

He added that “we’re learning a lot as we use the MQ-25 off the carrier decks in terms of employing unmanned air into a wing. That’s given us greater insights with respect to the direction we have to move with the air wing of the future.”

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

Written By

Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Slack

    September 16, 2021 at 12:56 am

    Hmm, a 400 km range air-to-air missile flies forward at high altitude guided by an overhead satellite with latest E/O sensors onboard. Minutes later,it dives down on an MQ-25 aerial tanker. BOOM! The explosion puts the tanker out of commision and a twin-engined prop aircraft is flipped inverted and crashes to the water below.

    The above scenario has never been contemplated by war planners despite it being an example of how the next 9/11 could easily happen in the future if the world’s mightiest war machine continues to believe in wars.

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