The carrier air wing has a range problem. Advances in antiship weapons continue to force aircraft carriers to operate farther from adversary shores. Simultaneously, air wing range has decreased markedly since its peak during the Cold War. The air wing—and with it, the carrier—is being squeezed into a zone of irrelevance: a carrier not survivable within air wing striking range and an air wing not in range of striking from where the carrier is survivable.1 Current solutions are failing. Buddy tanking—in which combat aircraft are used to refuel other combat aircraft—is burning through useful aircraft life and mortgaging the future of naval aviation.2 The MQ-25 will help this problem, but maybe not enough against Chinese long-range antiship missiles, and it will not be operational in the fleet until 2025.
1. David Larter, “What’s Killing the U.S. Navy’s Air Wing?” DefenseNews, 5 May 2019.
2. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Getting ‘Smarter’ about Tanking Mission as Super Hornets Approach 6,000 Hours,” USNI News, 12 August 2015.
3. Jerry Hendrix, Retreat from Range (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2015), 1.
4. Assumes weapons carried internally on F-35.
5. John Donnelly, “Navy’s Top-Dollar Stealth Fighter May Not Go the Distance,” Roll Call, 21 May 2018.
6. Bryan Clark, Adam Lemon, Peter Haynes, Kyle Libby, and Gillian Evans, Regaining the High Ground at Sea (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2018), 136.
7. Sam LaGrone, “MQ-25 Stingray Unmanned Aerial Tanker Could Almost Double Strike Range of U.S. Carrier Air Wing,” USNI News, 31 August 2017.
8. An F-35C carries 20,000 pounds of fuel for an approximately 800-mile strike radius. Splitting the 15,000 pounds of fuel among eight aircraft gives it a little under 2,000 pounds per aircraft, or approximately 75 miles additional strike radius (150-mile range).
9. A seaplane carrying 100,000 pounds of fuel would be roughly equal in size to the P6M Seamaster. If optimized for tanking, however, the vehicle would be far more efficient with a higher aspect ratio wing and reduced thrust-specific fuel-consumption engines, among other features.
10. “New Concepts in Ship Design,” Bureau of Ships Journal 7, no. 6 (October 1958): 5.
11. Estimate based on the cost of P6M Seamaster development, linearly extrapolated to 45 aircraft and normalized based on current year dollars. This should overstate the projected cost since research-and-development costs would decrease per aircraft.
12. L. A. Harney, J. F. T. Saur, and A. R. Robinson, “A Statistical Study of Wave Conditions at Four Open-Sea Localities in the North Pacific Ocean (Technical Note 1493),” National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1 January 1949, 15.
13. There is, of course, another option: Resurrect the seaplane striking force in its entirety. See, David Alman, “Bring Back the Seaplane,” War on the Rocks, 1 July 2020.