Report to Congress on Current, Future Unmanned Aircraft Systems

The following is the July 28, 2022, Congressional Research Service report, Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Current and Potential Programs. From the report Since the dawn of military aviation, the U.S. military has been interested in remotely piloted aircraft. Present-day unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) typically consist of an unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) paired with a ground control […]

The following is the July 28, 2022, Congressional Research Service report, Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Current and Potential Programs.

From the report

Since the dawn of military aviation, the U.S. military has been interested in remotely piloted aircraft. Present-day unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) typically consist of an unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) paired with a ground control station. UAS have become ubiquitous in U.S. military operations since the 1990s with the introduction of the MQ-1 Predator.

The U.S. military currently employs several different large UAS, including

  • the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle,
  • the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper,
  • the Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray,
  • the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk,
  • the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton, and
  • the Air Force’s RQ-170 Sentinel.

In addition, several other reported programs are either in development or currently undergoing experimentation. These programs include the Air Force’s B-21 Raider and the Air Force’s RQ-180.

As Congress performs its oversight and authorization functions, it may consider several potential issues associated with UAS programs, including

  • the cost of manned versus unmanned aircraft,
  • a lack of acknowledged follow-on programs of record,
  • the management of UAS acquisitions across the Department of Defense,
  • the interoperation of UAS with existing force structure, and
  • export controls of UAS abroad.

Download the document here.

Report to Congress on the Future of Unmanned Aircraft

The following is the July 18, 2022 Congressional Research Service report, Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Roles, Missions, and Future Concepts. From the report Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have gained increased prominence in U.S. military operations. The Department of Defense (DOD) is currently developing advanced UAS, along with optionally crewed aircraft, as part of its modernization strategy. […]

The following is the July 18, 2022 Congressional Research Service report, Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Roles, Missions, and Future Concepts.

From the report

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have gained increased prominence in U.S. military operations. The Department of Defense (DOD) is currently developing advanced UAS, along with optionally crewed aircraft, as part of its modernization strategy. The roles and missions of UAS are relevant to Congress in authorizing, appropriating, and providing oversight to DOD and the military services for these systems.

Over the past decades, military forces have used UAS to perform various tasks, including

  • intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance;
  • close air support;
  • cargo and resupply; and
  • communications relay.

Analysts and DOD argue that UAS could replace crewed aircraft for a number of missions, including

  • aerial refueling;
  • air-to-air combat;
  • strategic bombing;
  • battle management and command and control (BMC2);
  • suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses; and
  • electronic warfare (EW).

In addition, DOD is developing several experimental concepts—such as aircraft system-of-systems, swarming, and lethal autonomous weapons—that explore new ways of employing future generations of UAS.

In evaluating appropriations and authorizations for potentially new and future UAS programs, missions, and concepts, Congress may consider the following issues:

  • the proliferation of UAS able to function as lethal autonomous weapons and its implications for global arms control;
  • costs of future UAS compared with crewed aircraft;
  • personnel and skills implications of UAS;
  • concepts of operation and employment; and
  • the proliferation of uncrewed aircraft technologies.

Download the document here.

Several UAVs Under Development for Next-Generation Carrier Air Wing

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Several new unmanned aerial vehicles are under development as part of the Navy’s air wing of the future concept in addition to the unmanned aerial tanker set to deploy in 2026, Navy officials said on Wednesday. The new aircraft are being designed to meet growing requirements for range for carrier air wings, […]

An MQ-25 test asset, known as T1, conducts its first aerial refueling test flight with an F-35C Lightning II Sept. 13, 2021 near MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois. Boeing Photo

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Several new unmanned aerial vehicles are under development as part of the Navy’s air wing of the future concept in addition to the unmanned aerial tanker set to deploy in 2026, Navy officials said on Wednesday.

The new aircraft are being designed to meet growing requirements for range for carrier air wings, Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, the Navy’s air warfare director (OPNAV N98) ,said during a naval aviation panel at the Naval Institute, co-hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“As we go to the air wing of the future, we will be operating at ranges off of the aircraft carrier that vastly exceed what we’re doing today,” Loiselle said.
“In order to do that the unmanned portfolio really needs to be part of that system, because it’s the easiest way for us to keep a normally sized aircraft, but then have all of that extra space for fuel that gets us the range that we require to be able to get out there.”

With the F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter, the current air wing has an effective combat range of about 700 nautical miles from the carrier, USNI News previously reported. Prior to the F-35C inclusion on the carrier, the service relied on F/A-18E/F Super Hornets for strike and air-to-air missions with even shorter ranges.

In order to be effective in the vast distances in the increasingly dangerous Western Pacific, aircraft would notionally have to operate more than 1,000 nautical miles from the carrier to keep out of range of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles like the DF-21 and DF-26, analyst Bryan Clark told USNI News in 2020. 

The next step for the Navy is to bring an unmanned aerial refueling aircraft to operate further from the carrier to extend the range of the existing airwing. The first operational MQ-25A Stingray aerial refueling UAVs are set to deploy aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-73) by 2026, Vice Adm. Kevin Whitesell said in April.

Carrying 15,000 pounds of gas up to 500 nautical miles from the carrier, the Stingrays would take over the tanking mission from the existing fleet of F/A-18F Super Hornets.

“We have the MQ-25, which is first envisioned as a tanker. And so that’s its primary role in its initial instantiation, Loiselle said.
“And there are several other things under development right now that I’m very excited about.”

MQ-25A was initially conceived as a more capable unmanned aircraft as part of the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program that was pared back to the unmanned carrier tanker.

“MQ-25 is capable of significantly more than we are asking it to do at [initial operational capability]. So at IOC, it needs to be able to operate around an aircraft carrier and be able to conduct aerial refueling and that’s as far as we went,” Loiselle told USNI News in December.
“The rest of it will be spiral developed because it’s got significant additional capabilities with a mission bay… we plan to take use of in the future.”

A Boeing unmanned MQ-25 aircraft is given operating directions on the flight deck aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) on Dec. 13, 2021 in the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Navy Photo

As for new aircraft, he did not elaborate on the UAVs in the works. The Navy has kept mum on its research and development efforts into almost all of its new carrier air wing aircraft.

The Navy has classified the spending for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program that is expected to produce a manned fighter to replace the Super Hornets in the 2030s.

Loiselle did define three categories of unmanned aircraft his office is considering.

“The first set is something that can go into a hostile environment, high threat environment, and it can stay there, it can persist in a high threat environment. The second set is something that can go to that high threat environment, perform a given mission, briefly – a strike mission –and then leave and have a very high chance of coming home,” he said.
“The last set is something that is at an attritable price point, a much smaller vehicle that might perform any number of different missions. Anything from going out there with our fighter aircraft and carrying more air-to-air missiles… or we might someday integrate that type of thing into our electronic warfare, a distributed architecture that would conduct that mission. And then we might also use those same types of drones for a distributed command and control network.”

The UAVs aren’t part of the NGAD (pronounced En-JAD by the Navy, Loiselle said) program but would be part of the ongoing development of the fighter.

“They are not exclusively for that platform. Okay, there’s equal applicability in the manned-unmanned teaming concept for any small [UAS] to be used with any aircraft on our flight deck. It’s not limited to that one capability,” he said.

Loiselle spoke just days after the ninth anniversary of the July 10, 2013 landing of X-47B Salty Dog 502 aboard carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) – the first arrested landing of an unmanned aircraft on an aircraft carrier.

Report on Current, Future Pentagon Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Programs

The following is the April 13, 2022 Congressional Research Service report, Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Current and Potential Programs From the report Since the dawn of military aviation, the U.S. military has been interested in remotely piloted aircraft. Present-day unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) typically consist of an unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) paired with a ground control […]

The following is the April 13, 2022 Congressional Research Service report, Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Current and Potential Programs

From the report

Since the dawn of military aviation, the U.S. military has been interested in remotely piloted aircraft. Present-day unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) typically consist of an unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) paired with a ground control station. UAS have become ubiquitous in U.S. military operations since the 1990s with the introduction of the MQ-1 Predator.

The U.S. military currently employs several different large UAS, including:

  • the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle,
  • the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper,
  • the Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray,
  • the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk,
  • the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton, and
  • the Air Force’s RQ-170 Sentinel.

In addition, several other reported programs are either in development or currently undergoing experimentation. These programs include the Air Force’s B-21 Raider and the Air Force’s RQ-180.

As Congress performs its oversight and authorization functions, it may consider several potential issues associated with UAS programs, including:

  • the cost of manned versus unmanned aircraft,
  • a lack of acknowledged follow-on programs of record,
  • the management of UAS acquisitions across the Department of Defense,
  • the interoperation of UAS with existing force structure, and
  • export controls of UAS abroad.

In the U.S. military, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) are most often called unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs), which are described as either a single air vehicle (with associated surveillance sensors) or a UAV system (UAS), which typically consists of an air vehicle paired with a ground control station (where the pilot actually sits) and support equipment. Although UAS are commonly operated as one aircraft paired with one ground system, the Department of Defense (DOD) often procures multiple aircraft with one ground control station. When combined with ground control stations and communication data links, UAVs form unmanned aircraft systems or UAS.

The Department of Defense (DOD) defines UAVs, and, by extension, UAS as powered aircraft that

  • do not carry a human operator,
  • use aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift,
  • can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely,
  • can be expendable or recoverable, and
  • can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload.2

Ballistic or semiballistic vehicles, cruise missiles, and artillery projectiles are not considered UASs under the DOD definition.
UAS roles and missions have evolved over time, from collecting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to performing air-to-ground attack missions. Further, some analysts predict future roles for UAS, such as air-to-air combat and combat search and rescue. However, a detailed discussion of future concepts and missions for UAS are outside the scope of this report.

Download the document here.

Navy On Track to Deploy MQ-25A Carrier Tanker in 2026 on USS Theodore Roosevelt

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The Navy’s MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial refueling is set to deploy on an aircraft carrier in 2026, a service official said on Tuesday. Vice Adm. Kevin Whitesell told a panel at the Sea Air Space 2022 symposium that the service was on track to reach initial operational capability for the MQ-25As […]

A Boeing unmanned MQ-25A aircraft is given operating directions on the flight deck aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) on Dec. 13, 2021 in the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Navy Photo

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The Navy’s MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial refueling is set to deploy on an aircraft carrier in 2026, a service official said on Tuesday.

Vice Adm. Kevin Whitesell told a panel at the Sea Air Space 2022 symposium that the service was on track to reach initial operational capability for the MQ-25As by 2025 and deploy the aircraft on USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) by 2026.

The Navy has wrapped up early testing of the Boeing-built MQ-25A T-1 prototype ahead of the first production MQ-25As. The T-1 proved aerial refueling with F/A-18F Super Hornets, F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye operating out of MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Ill. In December, the Navy used the T-1 prototype for deck handling testing aboard USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77).

“We now need to continue to further develop MQ-25A to ensure that it’s going to be able to function within the air wing. [Fly] up to 500 miles away from the ship and be able to pass gas on the way out,” Vice Adm. Scott Conn, deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities (OPNAV N9), told reporters on Tuesday.
“It’s all about expanding our operational reach. Based on the environment and the threat, we need to continue to get more operational reach, continue to operate further and further away from our carriers. The MQ 25 is an important aspect of that.”

The Stingrays will replace the F/A-18F Super Hornets in the tanking mission for the carrier and free up the fighters for other missions. Anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of Super Hornet sorties have been in support of the tanking mission, USNI News has previously reported.

Previously, the Navy said USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and Bush would be the first carriers outfitted with the control stations and data links to field the Stingrays.

Boeing won an $805 million contract in 2018 to build the first four Stingrays in a competition that also included General Atomics and Lockheed Martin. In 2020, the Navy exercised an $84.7 million contract to buy three more, with a goal of a fleet of 76 for $1.3 billion.

The Navy is considering adding more capabilities to the MQ-25As as the tankers work more with the carrier air wing, service officials have told USNI News.

“We kind of went skinny on the initial requirements for this in order to be sure that we’re able to go fast. So MQ-25 is capable of significantly more than we are asking it to do at [initial operational capability]. So at IOC, it needs to be able to operate around an aircraft carrier and be able to conduct aerial refueling and that’s as far as we went,” Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, who leads the chief of naval operations air warfare directorate (OPNAV N98), told USNI News in December.
“The rest of it will be spiral developed because it’s got significant additional capabilities with a mission bay and weapons phase that, you know, we plan to take use of in the future.”

VIDEO: Navy Wraps Up MQ-25A Deck Handling Tests on Carrier USS George H.W. Bush

The prototype for the Navy’s unmanned refueling tanker has wrapped up deck handling tests aboard an aircraft carrier off the East Coast The service performed tests of the T-1 prototype aboard USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) to assess how the aircraft functioned aboard the flight deck in winds of more than 25 knots. “Once underway, […]

A Boeing unmanned MQ-25 aircraft is given operating directions on the flight deck aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) on Dec. 13, 2021 in the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Navy Photo

The prototype for the Navy’s unmanned refueling tanker has wrapped up deck handling tests aboard an aircraft carrier off the East Coast

The service performed tests of the T-1 prototype aboard USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) to assess how the aircraft functioned aboard the flight deck in winds of more than 25 knots.

“Once underway, the MQ-25 test asset, known as T-1, completed a series of test points that evaluated the functionality and capabilities of the deck handling system during both day and nighttime operations. Maneuvers included taxiing and parking on the flight deck, connecting to the catapult and clearing the landing area. Data was collected related to deck motion and wind over deck impacts to controllability and the propulsion system,” Naval Air Systems Command said in a news release this week.

The Navy worked with both Boeing, which built the prototype, and Lockheed Martin on the testing to better understand how the aircraft could be controlled on the flight deck and assimilate onto the carrier.

During testing, those handling the prototype aboard the carrier integrated with the Navy’s taxi directors and utilized the Deck Control Device built by Boeing, NAVAIR said.

Prior to assessing how the prototype functioned on the deck of the carrier during the recent at-sea testing phase, the Navy and contractors placed a control station in George H.W. Bush’s Unmanned Aviation Warfare Center while the ship was pier side.

“During the in-port portion of the UCAD, Lockheed Martin installed the prototype MD-5 ground control station in the Unmanned Aviation Warfare Center (UAWC), the CVN-based control room,” NAVAIR said. “The team specifically demonstrated the functionality of the GCS to the MQ-25 fleet integration team, giving them the opportunity to assess design constraints driven by shipboard installation and capture feedback on human system interfaces.”

The service and contractors only tested deck handling of the prototype, not how it flew on or off the carrier, but did use a King Air plane to test out the Joint Precision Landing System (JPALS).

“The team also coordinated the first Joint Precision Landing System (JPALS) surrogate flight with a King Air,” NAVAIR said. “Ship motion data collected during these first representative hardware and software approaches will be extremely valuable in refining the software.”

The MQ-25 will perform the aerial refueling mission for the Navy and free up some of the F/A-18F Super Hornets that do buddy refueling for the fleet. The program is expected to reach initial operational capability in 2025 and its development comes as the Navy seeks to operate aircraft from carriers at longer ranges in regions like the Indo-Pacific.

Boeing originally built the T-1 prototype for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program that was later altered to be a tanker. The prototype has already performed overland tests refueling an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, an F/A-18F Super Hornet and an F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, who leads the chief of naval operation’s air warfare directorate (OPNAV N98), told USNI News in an interview earlier this month that the deck handling test aboard Bush would help the Navy get a better sense of how the prototype’s engine functions in certain wind conditions.

“We’re making some great progress with T-1 and reducing risks for the program. And so the primary goal of this is to look at [performance] on the flight deck, in relevant flight deck wind conditions,” Loiselle said at the time. “When you look at the intake on that thing up on the top of the aircraft, I’m very interested to know how that thing’s going to behave from an engine perspective with 25 plus knots of wind from all directions.” 

MQ-25A Unmanned Prototype Now on Carrier George H.W. Bush for At-Sea Testing

THE PENTAGON – The prototype for the Navy’s unmanned refueling tanker is now aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier ahead of at-sea testing. Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, who leads the chief of naval operation’s air warfare directorate (OPNAV N98), told USNI News in a recent interview that as of Tuesday, the T-1 prototype is aboard […]

MQ-25A being lifted aboard carrier USS George H.W. BUsh (CVN-77) on Nov 30, 2021. US Navy Photo

THE PENTAGON – The prototype for the Navy’s unmanned refueling tanker is now aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier ahead of at-sea testing.

Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, who leads the chief of naval operation’s air warfare directorate (OPNAV N98), told USNI News in a recent interview that as of Tuesday, the T-1 prototype is aboard USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) for the ship’s carrier qualifications.

The tests for the Boeing-built MQ-25A Stingray are the next steps in providing a capability for the service to operate at longer ranges in regions like the Indo-Pacific, as it adjusts to a strategy focused on conflict with peer competitors like China and Russia.

“We’re making some great progress with T-1 and reducing risks for the program. And so the primary goal of this is to look at [performance] on the flight deck, in relevant flight deck wind conditions,” Loiselle said. “When you look at the intake on that thing up on the top of the aircraft, I’m very interested to know how that thing’s going to behave from an engine perspective with 25 plus knots of wind from all directions.”

Loiselle, who became the top aviation requirements officer in June, described MQ-25 as a crucial component of the Navy’s effort to gear up for operating at longer ranges, like those it would face in the Indo-Pacific region.

The prototype – which Boeing originally built for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program that was later retooled into a tanker – has already performed overland tests refueling an F/A-18F Super Hornet, an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and an F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

The Navy plans to have warrant officers operating the tankers, with the first 10 currently going through “processing” ahead of a training that will be specific to the MQ-25A, Loiselle said. He noted that the Navy’s approach to unmanned aerial systems includes more autonomy than that of the Air Force.

“That degree of autonomy leads us to believe air vehicle operators are the way to do this. And then when we look at from a manpower perspective of what the training tracks are and the complexity of current tactics requiring people to stay in a given field in order to get the expertise necessary for the high-end fight, it’s hard to pull people out and have them do something different. Doesn’t mean that we couldn’t do it in a surge time or something along that path. But the thought is that an individual operator is going to be capable of controlling multiple drones simultaneously because of the autonomy involved.”

Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, Director, Air Warfare Division, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, speaks to Naval Aviators at the 2021 Naval Helicopter Association (NHA) Symposium. US Navy Photo

Loiselle said the Navy tried to make the MQ-25 requirements simple to expedite how fast it could get the aircraft out to the fleet, but now he is recommending other potential missions for the tanker.

“We kind of went skinny on the initial requirements for this in order to be sure that we’re able to go fast. So MQ-25 is capable of significantly more than we are asking it to do at [initial operational capability]. So at IOC, it needs to be able to operate around an aircraft carrier and be able to conduct aerial refueling and that’s as far as we went,” Loiselle said.
“The rest of it will be spiral developed because it’s got significant additional capabilities with a mission bay and weapons phase that, you know, we plan to take use of in the future. But we expect that thing to be able to pass around 15,000 pounds of gas 500 miles away from the carrier. And so you know, you can split that up and use it however you want to be able to use it. And so it’s got some significant capabilities that I think we’re going to look at adding in the future. But right now – that stuff – that’s all stuff I’m proposing and looking to get funded.”

Boeing beat out Lockheed Martin and General Atomics for the contract to build the carrier-based drone in 2018. The first few Engineering Development Model aircraft, currently under construction, are slated to come off the production line next year, while IOC is scheduled for Fiscal Year 2025.

While the Navy is currently focused on the refueling requirement, Loiselle said the service sees a future for the MQ-25 program to perform more missions like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“It’s something that on the last launch of the night, I can shoot that thing. And it’s – instead of me launching all my helicopters from all my destroyers – I’ve got an airborne asset that can stay up all through the night and provide that recognized maritime picture overnight. [It] saves me all the wear and tear on – I mean, I’m still going to be launching some helicopters, but I don’t need as many to be doing that,” he said. “And then I’m working on the manned-unmanned teaming portion of that. Now if the helicopters get a contact here and they can have an MQ-25 overhead moving at five times the speed of a helicopter, then that allows me to get those information points into the operational picture on a much more rapid manner.”

Tim Walton, a fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology, said a future variant of the MQ-25 could help the Navy have an aircraft aboard its carriers that can operate at longer ranges and perform other missions.

“The MQ-25 has a great deal of potential not only for ISR, but also for other missions such as strike or airborne electronic attack,” Walton, who recently co-authored a report about aerial refueling, told USNI News.

MQ-25A T-1 prototype in the hangar aboard carrier USS George H.W. BUsh (CVN-77) on Nov 30, 2021. US Navy Photo

Walton’s report argued that the U.S. military needs to invest more money in the aerial refueling mission to remain competitive against China in the Indo-Pacific.

For example, the Navy would need “far more” MQ-25 tankers or help from the Air Force if it were operating an aircraft carrier outside the range of China’s DF-26 missile – which is reportedly 4,000 kilometers – with four F-35Cs, according to the report.

“The addition of the MQ-25A to the [carrier air wing] will increase the operating range of other carrier aircraft; however, the increased standoff distance that carriers and other ships may need to maintain from dangerous threats, such as land, sea, and air-launched cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles, may offset the opportunities enabled by the MQ-25A,” the report reads. “Moreover, the small number of MQ-25As currently planned for procurement may drive the Navy to operate MQ-25As as ‘recovery tankers’ that provide fuel to aircraft in exigencies to help them recover aboard the carrier, rather than ‘mission tankers’ that accompany aircraft on missions far from the carrier.”

Loiselle said discussions about expanding the MQ-25A program of record “are nascent and in pending budget and top line” review.

“Right now we don’t really know where we sit for [Fiscal Year 20]22, so it’s very hard for me to say where things are going to end up in the future right now,” he said.

As for China’s capabilities in the region, Loiselle pointed to the Navy’s pursuit of MQ-25 and the sixth-generation fighter program as evidence that naval aviation is seeking to keep up with the evolving threat environment.

“Just because we’ve had the next iteration of offensive capabilities doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be a next iteration of defensive capabilities that match those requirements. So we look very closely at it. You can see the advent of the MQ-25 to extend the range of our current fighters. You can see the NGAD program coming up looking to operate at extended ranges. And so we’ve clearly recognized this and we have acquisition strategies in place that are going to mitigate” worries about China’s missile capability and potential targeting of U.S. aircraft carriers.

Report to Congress on F-15EX Eagle II Fighter

The following is the Nov. 3, 2021, Congressional Research Service report: Air Force F-15EX Eagle II Fighter Program. From the report On March 11, 2021, the U.S. Air Force took delivery of its first F-15EX Eagle II fighter. The Eagle II program is intended to deliver 144 aircraft to replace aging F-15Cs, most of which […]

The following is the Nov. 3, 2021, Congressional Research Service report: Air Force F-15EX Eagle II Fighter Program.

From the report

On March 11, 2021, the U.S. Air Force took delivery of its first F-15EX Eagle II fighter. The Eagle II program is intended to deliver 144 aircraft to replace aging F-15Cs, most of which are in the Air National Guard.

The Trump Administration’s FY2020 budget proposal included a request for $1.1 billion to buy 8 F-15EX aircraft, the first procurement toward a planned initial buy of 144. This proposal represented a change from previous Air Force plans to procure only stealthy “fifth-generation” fighter aircraft.

The subsequent FY2021 defense budget proposal requested about $1.27 billion in procurement funding for 12 Eagle IIs and $133.5 million in advance procurement for future aircraft. The proposed budget also requested about $159.8 million for F-15EX research and development.

FY2021 defense authorization act: The FY2021 defense authorization bill funded F-15EX procurement at $1.24 billion, a reduction of $27.6 million from the requested level, for “airframe excess to need.” The report accompanying the bill included language prohibiting divestment of F-15Cs in the European theater pending delivery of a plan to maintain equal or better air capability in that theater.

FY2021 defense appropriations bill: The final omnibus budget bill funded F-15EX procurement at $1.23 billion for 12 aircraft, $36.2 million below the Trump Administration’s request, citing “unit cost adjustment.”

On March 11, 2021, the U.S. Air Force took delivery of its first F-15EX Eagle II fighter. The Eagle II program is intended to deliver 144 aircraft to replace aging F-15Cs, most of which are in the Air National Guard.

As the F-15 has formed the backbone of the Air Force’s air superiority fleet and later its heavy strike capability, with units stationed around the country, Congress has devoted increasing attention to the jet’s longevity and questions regarding its ongoing suitability for use as the fleet ages.

The Air Force received its first F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter in 1974. Subsequently, the F-15 evolved to encompass more roles, most notably with the deployment of the F-15E Strike Eagle in 1989. The F-15E added substantial air-to-ground capability, including a second cockpit for a weapons systems officer. The Air Force has 453 F-15s of all variants, the newest of which, an F-15E, was ordered in 2001. Following the last U.S. order, F-15s have continued in production for a variety of international customers, including (among others) Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Japan.

Current F-15s have stronger airframes and more advanced sensors, processors, and flight control systems than those in the U.S. fleet. Many also include conformal fuel tanks to extend range and increase payload. The F-15EX is based on the most advanced Eagles, currently in production for Qatar, and would add radar and other subsystems unique to the United States. Boeing says that the F-15EX would have 70% parts commonality with existing U.S. F-15s. Recognizing that the aircraft is both a continuation but carries new capabilities, the Air Force has named the aircraft “Eagle II.”

The F-15EX first flew at Boeing’s St. Louis, MO, plant on February 2, 2021.

Download the document here.

Top Stories 2020: U.S. Navy Acquisition

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction […]

Attack boat Vermont (SSN-792) float-off on March 29, 2019. General Dynamics Electric Boats Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 may be among the most consequential years for Navy acquisition in recent memory, with the service making big moves in support of its Distributed Maritime Operations operating concept. 2020 was the year the Navy officially started construction on the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, a massive every-other-generation effort to replace the sea-based nuclear deterrent subs. It was also the year the Constellation-class guided-missile frigate program was awarded to Fincantieri, who will design and build what will become a centerpiece of the future distributed fleet. It was the year the Navy called for an end to the F/A-18E-F Super Hornet program, reinvesting that money into a longer-range next-generation fighter that could help silence critics who say the aircraft carrier will be useless against China because the air wing’s range is too short. And it was the year the Navy and its Marine Corps partners moved out on a Light Amphibious Warship that could revolutionize how the Fleet Marine Force moves around a maritime theater in support of sea control and sea denial.

Surface Ships

Fincantieri FFG(X) Design based on the FREMM. Fincantieri Image

The surface fleet is among the parts of the Navy most changed by Distributed Maritime Operations. Rather than the Navy’s recent reliance on guided-missile cruisers and destroyers to drill with allies and partners, patrol chokepoints and conduct freedom of navigation operations, the Navy will instead rely on a large fleet of small combatants to do much of this day-to-day work, freeing up a smaller number of destroyers to conduct higher-end operations and haul around large, long-range missiles. Key to this plan is the success of the Constellation-class frigate. The Navy awarded a $795-million contract to Fincantieri on April 30 to do detail design work and build the first frigate in the class. Options for as many as nine more ships would bring the total value to $5.58 billion if exercised. Fincantieri beat out four other competitors with a design based on the FREMM multi-mission frigate already operated by the French and Italian navies. It will build the frigate at its Marinette Marine shipyard in Wisconsin. In October, the class officially received a name, with Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite announcing the first-in-class ship would be USS Constellation (FFG-62) – after it was nearly named USS Agility by former SECNAV Thomas Modly earlier in the year. Though there will be fewer large combatants in the fleet, their mission will remain important: Navy leadership has said the large combatants of the future will haul around the biggest missiles, including hypersonic weapons.

USS Detroit (LCS-7) sails in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (DDG-82), USS Preble (DDG-88) and USS Farragut (DDG-99) while conducting maritime security operations in the Caribbean Sea. US Navy Photo

The Navy is still struggling to figure out how to get the ship it needs for a price it can afford, given the deemphasis on the large combatant portfolio in future fleet plans. What was once a 2023 start to the Large Surface Combatant program was pushed to 2025 and then 2026 – and this year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said the large combatant, which he calls “DDG-Next,” will begin detail design in 2026 and construction in 2028. New and important to the DMO concept – and the related Marine Corps concepts of Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) – are the Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) and the Next-Generation Logistics Ship (NGLS) programs that kicked off this year. After some Marine Corps officials had kicked around the idea of a stern-landing vessel for EABO operations last year, in February the Navy included in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request $30 million each to begin working on the new amphib and new logistics ship.

Sea Transport Solutions Image

Throughout the summer, the vision of what LAW would become grew clearer, as the Marines made the case for small units operating outside the Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit construct. These units would move from shore to shore, providing the joint force forward refueling and rearming capabilities in remote locations, collecting intelligence, providing anti-ship and even anti-submarine strike capabilities, and more. Their small footprint and maneuverability with the LAWs would make them hard for an adversary to detect and hit. By the fall, a cost estimate of about $100 million apiece, as well as requirements for length, storage capacity, crewing and more emerged, showing the dedication to begin buying the ships in FY 2022. According to the long-range shipbuilding plan that accompanied the release of Battle Force 2045, the Next-Generation Logistics Ship would kick off procurement in FY 2023, though much less is known about that new ship compared to the LAW. This medium-sized ship would be able to help resupply the distributed Navy and Marine forces operating under DMO and EABO, while blending in with local merchant traffic and being harder for an adversary to target and disrupt the flow of supplies into theater. It’s unclear how far along the Navy is in developing its requirements. A previous effort for a somewhat larger set of ships to do resupply and other missions, called the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-mission Platform (CHAMP), has hit several roadblocks as its price tag remains higher than Navy and White House officials are comfortable spending on an auxiliary ship.

Submarines

Virginia-class submarine Delaware (SSN-791) was moved out of a construction facility into a floating dry dock using a transfer car system in 2018. HII Photo

The Navy in November awarded $9.47 billion to General Dynamics Electric Boat to officially start construction on the first ballistic-missile submarine in the Columbia class. This SSBN program is the Navy’s all-important program with no room for error or delays, after all schedule margin was eaten up in the early days of the program and the future USS Columbia (SSBN-826) must be ready for its first patrol in the fall of 2030. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Columbia program remained on track, in a nod to the importance on the program and the Navy prioritizing resources – available workers, materials and money – to keeping this program on track, even if it means attack submarines or aircraft carriers slipping in schedule. Still, though the program has remained on track, the Navy announced last month it was looking at extending the life of the legacy Ohio-class SSBNs – again – to provide a bit of additional capacity for combatant commanders and a bit of cushion in case there are hiccups in the future with the Columbia program. Partly as a result of keeping Columbia on track, the Virginia-class attack submarines slipped further behind in production this year, after already having some schedule delays as the program tried to maintain a two-a-year production rate. Threatening to further challenge the program was a White House proposal to buy just one SSN in FY 2021, which would throw off the workflow for thousands of suppliers trying to smoothly ramp up their production rates to accommodate both the Virginia and the Columbia programs. The White House reversed course in late November and expressed support for a second Virginia sub. Looking towards the future, the Navy this year made headway planning for its Block VI Virginia design – which would add new capability and lethality such as improved stealth and the ability to conduct seabed warfare – as well as the SSN(X) design that would build upon both Block VI and the Columbia SSBN design. All told, the Navy is trying to morph its attack submarine fleet to something closer to the Seawolf class, which was designed to operate deep into Soviet waters and go head-to-head with peer adversary subs, compared to the Virginia class which was originally designed for land-attack and intelligence-collection missions.

Carrier Aviation

Sailors assigned to the air department aboard the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) prepare to launch an F/A-18F Super Hornet attached to the Gladiators of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 during flight operations, March 29, 2020. US Navy Photo

Even as the Navy continued on with its Ford-class carriers this year, questions began swirling about the class’s future and what might come next to either replace or to supplement the Ford-class supercarrier. In March, Modly kicked off a Blue-Ribbon Future Carrier 2030 Task Force to look at the future of aircraft carriers and whether the U.S. Navy would stick with the Ford class beyond the future Doris Miller (CVN-81), whether it would move to a different nuclear-powered carrier design, or whether it would use conventionally powered carriers. Despite the prominent figures on the task force, it was not particularly well received: any reduction in demand for nuclear ship components could break the fragile industrial base, some worried, while others were concerned that the 11-carrier fleet was already overworked today and that the task force could lead to a reduction in CVNs in the future without a reduction in demand for their presence in theater. Though the study itself was canceled just two months later by Acting SECNAV James McPherson, the idea lingered: former Defense Secretary Mark Esper became interested in the notion of a conventionally powered light carrier to supplement the nuclear-powered supercarrier, and after months of study he settled on a plan to field eight to 11 CVNs – possibly down from today’s 11 – and supplement them with as many as six CVLs. He and Navy officials conceded that much work needed to be done to figure out what the CVL would look like and how to balance the two classes of ships.

Aviation Ordnancemen assigned to USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN 78) weapons department bring inert training bombs up to the flight deck during flight operations May 30, 2020. Ford is underway in the Atlantic Ocean conducting integrated air wing operations. US Navy photo.

Despite the questions about the future of carriers, the Ford-class program continued along, with USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) at times spending more days at sea than in port to conduct post-delivery tests and trials and get ready for full-ship shock trials next summer. Despite PDT&T moving ahead of schedule and the troubled Advanced Weapons Elevators finally coming online in numbers, the Navy fired its CVN-78 program manager and brought in a captain with “proven program management acumen and extensive waterfront experience” to see Ford through its remaining work before being fully turned over to the fleet for a maiden deployment.

Aircraft

An F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to the ‘Dambusters’ of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 195, prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) on Oct. 16, 2020. US Navy Photo

In a major move for carrier aviation, the Navy announced in February in its FY 2021 budget request that it would not continue Super Hornet production beyond the end of the current multiyear contract, which runs through FY 2021. Funding that had been planned for another contract for FY 2022 through 2024 would instead be diverted to “accelerated development of Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and other key aviation wholeness investments.” With little fanfare, the Navy stood up an NGAD program office under Naval Air Systems Command in May and quickly began industry talks. Though investing in NGAD was the primary reason for ending the Super Hornet line, the Navy also said that stopping new Super Hornet production would free up the production line for Super Hornet life extension work, which the Navy needs to add capability to the jets and keep them around long enough for a replacement to be designed and built.

Sailors assigned to Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron (VRM) 30 direct a CMV-22B Osprey from the ‘Titans’ of VRM 30 on the flight deck of Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Nov. 20, 2020. US Navy Photo

Supporting a near-term change for the carrier air wing, Bell-Boeing delivered the first CMV-22B Osprey to the Navy in February, allowing the Navy to start a short test and evaluation program before turning the aircraft over to the operational squadron that will support the first deployment in 2021. The Navy needs the CMV-22 to serve as its new carrier onboard delivery (COD) platform because the legacy C-2 Greyhound cannot carry a large F-35C engine; the Osprey could carry the engine out to an aircraft carrier and would also have the added flexibility of being able to bring people and supplies directly to the other ships in the strike group, which can support the V-22 landing on their helicopter decks. USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) will make the first deployment with the F-35C in 2021, so the CMV-22 needs to be ready too for that deployment. Looking a few years out, the Navy is making good progress on its MQ-25A Stingray unmanned carrier-based refueling tanker. In April the Navy exercised a contract option to buy three more aircraft from Boeing, and in December the Stingray made its first flight with the refueling system attached under its wings.

Unmanned Systems

Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) prototype Sea Hunter pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii on Oct. 31, 2018. US Navy Photo

In other unmanned news, the Navy set off down a path to design and build medium and large unmanned surface vessels of its own, after earlier work had been done with Pentagon-purchased USVs. L3 Technologies in July won a $35-million contract to develop a prototype Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV), with options for eight follow-on craft that could bring the contract to a value of $281 million. In September, the Navy awarded six companies contracts to begin determining what the service’s Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle will look like. Austal USA, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Fincantieri Marinette, Bollinger Shipyards, Lockheed Martin and Gibbs & Cox each won about $7 million for LUSV design studies. Using Pentagon-built prototypes, the Navy operated the Sea Hunter medium USV with a carrier strike group this year, and an Overlord large USV conducted the first-ever autonomous transit of the Panama Canal as it sailed from the Gulf of Mexico to Southern California. In the undersea domain, just this week the Navy released its final request for proposals for the Snakehead Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV) program, with the intention to select a single vendor next year to begin designing and building two prototypes.

Plans and Budgets

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and their carrier strike groups (CSGs) steam in formation on July 6, 2020. US Navy Photo

Though many of these moves in 2020 will be instrumental in creating the fleet the Navy and Marine Corps know they need to deter China or win a fight if needed – especially the unmanned vessels, the light amphib and the frigate – the exact future shipbuilding plans for the Navy are still unclear. After the Navy and Marine Corps wrapped up an Integrated Naval Force Structure Assessment in January, Esper did not agree it was the right plan. He ultimately kicked off a Pentagon-led Future Naval Force Study that worked from February to October to look at what the sea services needed to do to be prepared to beat China in a fight in the 2045 timeframe. This effort led to a Battle Force 2045 plan that had all the same themes as the Navy’s original INFSA earlier in the year. The Pentagon couched the differences as a matter of timelines and how aggressively to begin making changes: The Navy had been focused on a 2030 timeframe and what needed to happen quickly to overhaul the fleet in the next decade to support DMO, LOCE and EABO. The Pentagon instead took a longer view meant to incorporate what kind of threat China could ultimately become in the long run and therefore what the Navy and Marines would need to do to counter it – with the expectation that transformation would start now with that 2045 threat in mind. The plan will need buy-in from lawmakers, who have been largely unimpressed with the plans presented to them this year. The original FY 2021 budget request was called “dead on arrival” after it contained the smallest shipbuilding budget in years. The Battle Force 2045 and its accompanying long-range shipbuilding plan was panned for the opposite reason, for being out of touch with budget realities and calling for too quick a naval buildup.