Monday, March 28, 2016

Is The Navy's New Tanker Already Doomed?

Upon first hearing that the Navy had opted to forego any real decision about the future of UCAV/UCLASS and carrier aviation in general, in favor of a simplified unmanned tanker (RAQ-25 “CBARS”), ComNavOps applauded that small portion of the decision.  Using front line combat aircraft as tankers was an idiotic decision of monumental proportions.  Thus, a small, cheap, dedicated tanker was a good thing.  If it was to be unmanned and offer the Navy some on the job carrier UAV integration and autonomous programming experience, all the better.  The key, though, to my reaction was the initial description of the tanker as simple – which implied cheap and small.

Now, however, we’re seeing the first hints that the small, cheap, unmanned tanker is morphing into a complex, multi-function, combination strike/ISR/tanking platform. 

“The Fiscal Year 2017 budget request includes an $84 million line item for CBARS but will also build off of $434 million in future unmanned carrier aviation money that was included into the FY 2016 Omnibus bill, Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, deputy chief of naval operations for integration of capabilities and resources, told USNI News in a Wednesday interview.

“So UCLASS doesn’t exist but the CBARS will be able to draw that money. That’s why in one reason in ‘17 we didn’t ask for a whole lot more,” Mulloy said.

Mulloy said the Navy was patching together a submission to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) that amounted to an 80-percent solution for the initial UCLASS design.

“We’re probably going to drop some of the high-end specs and try to grow the class and increase the survivability [later],” Mulloy said.

“It has to be more refueling, a little bit of ISR, weapons later and focus on its ability to be the flying truck.” (1)

Did you catch the little money trail, there?  This program, for an ostensibly simple and cheap tanker, is already budgeted at $84M plus the $435M ($519M total).  That’s over half a billion dollars and we haven’t even gotten to the request for proposal stage, yet!!!!!!

Requirements that amount to 80% of the UCLASS ????  What happened to a simple, dedicated tanker?

Here’s more evidence that the tanker will also be a strike and ISR platform.

“Lescher [Rear Adm. William Lescher, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget] added that CBARS would also retain a limited strike capability in addition to an ISR role for the carrier.” (2)

Strike and ISR????

So, we’re seeing that, far from a simple, dedicated unmanned tanker, the Navy now wants a near-UCLASS aircraft.  You know what happens when requirements grow beyond the immediate function – costs and schedules also grow.  Ask the LCS program what happens when requirements run amok.  We’re going to be looking at a $200M tanker that will require decades to field, if the Navy doesn’t exercise some common sense restraint.  This is a very worrisome development at such an early point in the process – requirements only grow with time and this tanker appears to already be trending towards a vastly overdesigned platform.

This is starting to look as if the Navy is attempting to get the “limited strike” and ISR UCLASS that it wanted all along, but that Congress and others rejected, under the guise of a simple tanker and is using the “tanker” marketing ploy to sell it to Congress.

Given that a carrier only needs around 4 tankers for each carrier air wing, which is only 36 aircraft (and they don’t need that many – they could just cross deck for each deployment), there won’t be any economy of scale.  This could balloon well past $200M. 

Someday we’re going to look back at this program and wonder where and how a simple tanker program went wrong.  Well, it started right here and right now.

The Navy appears to be pathologically incapable of learning lessons.


(1) USNI News, “WEST: NAVAIR’s Unmanned Aerial Tanker Acquisition Will Be Leaner Than Previous UCLASS Effort”, Sam LaGrone, February 19, 2016,

(2) USNI News, “Unmanned CBARS Tanker Air Segment Draft RFP Expected Later This Year”, Sam LaGrone, February 11, 2016,


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I had a friend who was in the 11th ACR many years ago.He did Desert Shield and Storm. He later went into the Guard and deployed to Haiti.

    After doing all this it was his opinion that the Guard could be better put to use as a logistics organization for the regular army, not a combat arm. He had a bunch of reasons, I'm not here to say its a good idea or not. What did strike me was his reasoning for why it would never happen. "No governor, or Guard general, wants to have the lack of prestige of logistics. They want armor, or helicopters'.

    I wonder if this situation is similar. No Admiral wants to be the guy in charge of the cheap gas tank drone. He wants the 80% UCLASS. So he's going to tweak things.

    The only other solution that makes sense to me is that this is a subset of the new construction mindset.

    Build a cheap, 36 unit run of drone tankers and its not sexy and doesn't have alot of political capital.

    Build an 80% UCLASS and you make your suppliers happy, and the suppliers can spread the wealth of job construction like they did for the F-35. Boom, your tanker just got way more expensive, increasing your budget. And the jobs spread makes it harder for Congress to kill.

    Either way makes more sense to me because the goal for the Navy isn't the tanker. Its the prestige for an admiral, or its a justification for the budget slice that the UCLASS light gives.

    1. "I wonder if this situation is similar. No Admiral wants to be the guy in charge of the cheap gas tank drone. He wants the 80% UCLASS. So he's going to tweak things."

      I'd argue the solution to that is to add a tanker/AWACS plane to a fighter flight, rather than add a tanker flight to a fighter wing.

  3. Nick, I deleted your comment because it had a link to an ad and I don't allow ads. Feel free to re-enter your text. There was nothing wrong with that. I don't have the ability to just edit portions of a comment.

  4. Some speculation was that the UCLASS was killed because it was ahead of the F35 in development and seen as a threat to that program. Could this UCLASS light program, CBARS, be the Navy's attempt to get what they really want and not loose what they have already learned in that programs development. If they Navy had it's way it appears they would prefer a mix of UCLASS and Hornets. Just a thought.

    1. I hadn't heard the UCLASS/F-35 speculation. Regardless, I think you're correct that the CBARS is an attempt by the Navy to get what they wanted by simply relabeling the project.

  5. Our military procurement is so screwed up, I'm afraid that at this point,we almost need a war with a peer nation to wake up political establishment and get rid of all the dead wood inside Pentagon.

    1. given current western war fighting capabilities, i'd rather our political elites stick to profligate wastage in our military industries thank you very much.

      Yep, this is mission creep, before theres a mission, or an asset to carry out the mission, or even an idea of what the mission will be, but, already, mission creep.

    2. This is interesting.


      It seems like the Pentagon could desperately use an audit.

  6. USNI has reported that 20 to 30 percent of Super Hornets are used as tankers. Given there are 24 Super Hornets in carrier air wing, some 5 to 7, maybe 8, Super Hornets are used as tankers.

    I don't know how much fuel a CBARS can carry and offload, but I doubt it will carry as much as a Super Hornet. The Navy might find it needs 8 to 10 CBARS to replace 5 to 7 Super Hornets.

    And, how many CBARS do we need? At best, maybe a hundred or so. To me, it makes more sense to buy more Super Hornets.

    1. If the unmanned tanker costs more $200 million a pop and you need to buy 8 to replace 5 SHornets that are cheaper, yeah, doesn't seem to make much sense fiscally.....

    2. I think it likely ( and of course we will have to wait and see ) that CBARS will be configured to carry a large amount of fuel, fly slowly and stay on station for a considerable amount of time.

      I'm assuming that this will actually be the main advantage of an unmanned asset.

      I'm anticipating it will be little more than two high bypass engines and a massive wing. + a long hose.

      I think we can tell this from the name "Stingray".

    3. "I don't know how much fuel a CBARS can carry and offload, but I doubt it will carry as much as a Super Hornet. The Navy might find it needs 8 to 10 CBARS to replace 5 to 7 Super Hornets."

      Supposedly, fewer unmanned tankers will be needed due to their ability to stay aloft for much longer periods of time. Of course, that presupposes that they carry a proportionally greater amount of fuel. That remains to be seen.

    4. "If the unmanned tanker costs more $200 million a pop..."

      I know this is going to sound naive... but why would even an unmanned tanker cost $200 million a pop? Why is tanker building so difficult? It would seem a retrofit of a high capacity aircraft. I mean... if they can make a Hornet do it, how much harder is it to build a purpose built aircraft?

      And yet, the prices seem exorbitant. Even for the new KC-46 the prices are through the roof (though cheaper than $200 million a pop).

      It just seems like a modern, mature aeronautics company should be able to build one of these fairly easily and cheaply. Its a flying gas tank with a hose.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. "I know this is going to sound naive... but why would even an unmanned tanker cost $200 million a pop?"

      Well, let's see. Is there a comparable aircraft that that we could use as a price point that has moderate range, stealth, ISR capability, radar, data linking, extensive comms, and a significant payload? Does that kind of sound like the F-35? Those are going for $150M+ each and were going for $200M+ in the initial production lots. This tanker will have all that plus autonomous control and will only be purchased in a small quantity so no economy of scale. Throw in the Navy's compulsion to gold-plate anything they buy plus the usual cost overruns and delays and how do you conclude that the cost will be anything but $200M+?

    7. Last I read, the UCLASS were going for about $50 million. I can't see the Navy spending $200 million per CBARS. But, at some point, the Navy has to make a case for CBARS relative to the cost and performance of a Super Hornet.

    8. Do I need to remind you about the Navy's history of cost estimating?

    9. Of course not. And, poor cost estimating isn't limited to the Navy.

    10. "Well, let's see. Is there a comparable aircraft that that we could use as a price point that has moderate range, stealth, ISR capability, radar, data linking, extensive comms, and a significant payload?"

      Ahh. I see. I was thinking more along the lines of a drone with big gas tanks and a boom/gas hose.

      even with that, if you look at the KC-46 its $188m a pop.

      Its insane to me. The technology to make a wide body cargo/fuel jet aircraft has literally been around since the 50's.

      As for tactical utility, per your other comment, making these things anything else other than tankers is insane. You can't risk your aircrafts ticket home.

      They *need* tankers if they are going to give a decent range to their strike package; and have enough aircraft left over to make a relevant strike package.

      I suppose you could make a case for just buying a bunch of extra superhornets and just using them as buddy tankers. There is room on the flight deck, and it keeps logistics simple. But does a SH carry enough fuel even with buddy tanks?

    11. When I first heard the announcement of a dedicated tanker, along with some of the unofficial comments, it seemed as if the aircraft would be a non-stealthy, conventional aircraft that would be purely an unmanned tanker. I applauded that decision. It would have filled a needed role and allowed the Navy to accumulate some experience operating a UAV in the air wing and around the carrier. As a non-stealthy gas truck, it should have cost far less than a Hornet. Unfortunately, it's already morphed into a many-multi-mission, stealthy aircraft that is going to cost a fortune.

    12. CNO, even if the cost of the unmanned tanker exceeded twice the cost of an F-18, and it might offing to low production numbers, it would offer a net overall savings by reducing wear and tear on F-18s and of course a massive capability jump.


    13. Oh absolutely! The capability is needed and the cost will be whatever it is and be worth it. What I'm against is taking a straightforward tanker and adding stealth, ISR, sensors, strike, etc. and having the cost balloon out of sight.

      Our combat aircraft numbers have shrunk so far and show every sign of continuing to do so. We can't afford to have half a dozen combat aircraft tied up doing tanking.

    14. CNO,

      A think the USN tanker shortfall is even greater than we think.

      Too much of current thinking is focused on sortie generation vice alpha strike generation. Given the short legs of the current carrier wing, I believe that each wing will require 8-12 tankers to support flex deck operations.

      On the other hand, tanker attrition should be minimal compared to the losses that TACAIR will face in the opening stages of a major war against a peer competitor.


    15. George, What about the wear and tear on CBARS? If Super Hornets are wearing out early because they are flying tanker missions, the same should occur with CBARS.

    16. Walter
      Sh are wearing out early because they are doing their planned combat ops and tanking as well.
      There is nothing specific about tanking that wears jets out, they simply have a finite number of flight hours.

  7. I actually picked up on this, and just had a head in hand moment.

    Its a perfectly good idea, just by itself.

    You could argue, that whilst your out at a 300nm arc, doing your tanking thing. You may as well have a look over and do a bit if ISTAR :S

    ( if ISTAR was the kind of thing, you just do on a whim !?!? )

    A tanker that eats its own fuel, could be a long range asset... maybe

    I just hope it doesn't take over the main roll.

    Every pound you divert to sensors and weapons means less force magnification in terms of tanking.

    And I bet that goes double for diverted dollars.

    1. "You could argue, that whilst your out at a 300nm arc, doing your tanking thing. You may as well have a look over and do a bit if ISTAR :S"

      If you have a high value tanker operating anywhere, you'd better be sure it's safe! The loss of the tanker could result in many aircraft being lost due to lack of fuel and the lost tanker will impact all future flight operations by causing the air wing to operate with less tanking.

      By definition, then, if the tanker is operating in a safe area, a safe area has nothing ISR-worthy to see.


      Check Mate mine commandant !

      nice logic, yer that idea is going nowhere.

  8. I don't mind if an asset, designed for one purpose, is later found to be useful in another role later. The Strike Eagle has some utility. IIRC the P-47 was found to be a good ground attack asset when its use as a fighter waned.

    But I don't like this 'lets design for this... and this... and this...' that we've run into.

  9. The goal of all this is to enable very short legged Navy strike packages to deliver alpha strikes at long range. F-18s doing the buddy tanker role is appropriate, but the Navy still needs a large tanker aircraft - UCLASS is too small (capacity wise) to serve as a tanker. This requirement existed even when the comparatively long legged A-6s and F-14s were still around.

    If the Navy wants to get serious about the pivot to the Pacific, it needs a very large tanker aircraft on the order of a KA-3B: this means an aircraft capable of delivering ~4,500 gallons or ~31,500 lbs. of fuel to a radius of ~500nm. Consider that F-18s have ~14,000 lbs. of internal fuel capacity, so it would take a fuel orbit of tankers to enable a twelve aircraft strike package to hit targets at 1,000nm or so. Note: I am assuming there is some buddy tanking going on, and that a 21st century Pentagon could improve on the mid-20th century EKA/KA-3B – we should be somewhat critical of this assumption.

    I also believe that this tanker should have a flying boom receptacle to give the aircraft the ability to receive fuel from USAF tankers at much higher delivery rates. The USAF system was designed to deliver very large quantities of fuel to strategic bombers: there are work arounds for refueling tactical aircraft, but these are less than optimal work arounds.

    Adding a flying boom receptacle to Navy tanker air would let Air Force KC-135s and KC-46s fuel the dedicated Navy tanker at very fast rates, and then depart. The Navy tanker would in turn refuel Navy aircraft. The way aerial refueling is done now forces USAF tankers, which are strategic assets, to hang around and fuel each tactical aircraft individually or by pairs.

    If the tanker could be fitted with large external tanks (e.g. 1,200 gallon KC-130 tanks), even if the aircraft had to launch with them empty, it would enable the new tanker to on-load that much more fuel.

    It is also desirable for the Navy tanker to be able to refuel USAF aircraft with: a flying boom!


  10. What about an unmanned Super Hornet?

    1. It would not work against a modern enemy (they will jam the signal) and the latency, along with risk of connection loss makes it not possible (at least with current technology) for air superiority.

  11. Speaking of navy airplanes. I thought the f35 was supposed to be the only fighter in development. According to a story the CNO I'd quoted as saying "said the next-generation Navy fighter being developed to replace the F/A-18 may be less stealthy than expected, shedding a bit of new detail upon a topic not discussed much by Navy developers."

    Anyone know what's under development?


    1. The sixth gen fighter has been under conceptual development for a year or more. CNO Greenert publicly stated that stealth was not a priority characteristic. This much is old news.

      There has been recent musing that we ought to just drop the F-35 and move on to the sixth gen aircraft since the F-35 won't be combat ready for several more years anyway.

  12. "CNO Greenert publicly stated that stealth was not a priority characteristic"

    I know its old news, but it still blows me away. We're 15 years into a development program for a fighter whose major feature isn't that big of a deal anymore?

    To be fair, I don't think its the LO aspects of the F-35 that are hurting its development. Those seem at least relatively stable from a radar perspective.

    If they could make a more conventional LO (SH levels, or SE levels) fighter with a much bigger fuel fraction, and a similar LO strike aircraft I think they'd be much better off.

    Think of an A6-F type aircraft with SH level LO coupled with a high fuel fraction fighter with similar LO. It might not be super sexy but coupled with good missiles it would give our carriers more tactical flexibility.

    1. if you look at F22 all aspect LO shaping to F35 frontal only, we already see a trend.

      Stealth is as much about AESA, Low Probability of Intercept coms, and materials, as it is about anything else.

      Who see's who first and can hit each other before the enemy can see the strike platform is in essence stealth.

      Systems like IRST, Meteor data-linked missiles and Drone pairing, is making Stealth shaping at the expense of other aspects secondary.

      I don't think the concept of Stealth will now GO, just change priority and nature.

      I very much doubt we will be seeing a step backwards to kinetics and mega mach speed either !

    2. In a previous post discussion about the possibly reduced importance of stealth, a reader made an astute observation that stealth would not go away - a non-stealth aircraft will stand out like a beacon! - but would, instead, become the baseline price of admission to the air to air combat arena. Stealth is something you must have just to meet the baseline level of survival but it's no longer the only, or most important, characteristic. I think this is the point that, too, are making and it's a good one.

      Moving forward, I'd look for IR stealth to be the next big development. If you can build an aircraft with greatly reduced IR signature (meaning skin/friction heat reduction as well as engine exhaust) then you can evade IRST systems.

      Skin IR reduction is a matter of fluid resistance. Air can be thought of as a fluid. An aircraft skin that has "lubricating" properties can cut through the fluid with less resistance which means less heat generation. Oil, for example, lubricates steel as it's being cut to reduce the amount of heat generated. If the aircraft skin were coated with, or inherently possessed, a "lubricant" that reduced the friction with air, you'd have a more IR stealthy aircraft.

    3. IR stealth is a lot harder than that.

      The engine is the biggest problem since it generates a massive amount of heat.

      That by the way is why I was critical of the M1 tank. You can do some things like exhaust cooling, but IR will be proportionate to fuel consumption.

      Also, one of the reasons for the exhaust on the F-22 was for IR and radar signature reduction, but in practice I would argue it is not worth it as there are reductions as well in thrust.

    4. To be honest I think the problem is a good deal more complex than that. With the invention of laser cooling and quantum-well technology, we can start to effectively be picking up a plane via all kinds of frequencies of EM ( or indeed the absence of those frequencies )

      Couple that with sensor fusion and you can BUILD a track based on partial returns in many frequencies from many angles. We are already getting a couple of extra steps ahead on this.

      Most importantly with data linked weapons, we can not only find a stealth target, we can actually do something about it ( something many people seem to forget with the F22 and f35 ) guiding a weapon via this composite track to within terminal prosecution range.

      It really just comes back to the old old doctrine of look first, shoot first, kill first.

      ( its certainly cost a lot of money and some dam fancy new phrases, to get up back to something we knew 40 years ago ? hmmm )

    5. "IR stealth is a lot harder than that."

      I didn't say it was easy. No new technology is. However, if IRST is the future of "radar" then IR stealth is the future of countermeasures. Skin treatments, as I outlined, are one part of the answer. Cooler engines is another. Engine exhausts "buried" in the aircraft to use the bulk of the aircraft to hide the IR source to an extent might be another answer. I'm sure there are other possibilities that will become apparent when scientists begin looking seriously at IR suppression.

    6. "With the invention of laser cooling and quantum-well technology, we can start to effectively be picking up a plane via all kinds of frequencies of EM ( or indeed the absence of those frequencies )

      Couple that with sensor fusion and you can BUILD a track based on partial returns in many frequencies from many angles."

      You're missing one of my recurring themes which is to build simpler, build cheaper (because of the simplicity), and build for a shorter life (also reducing costs). Yes, the kind of multi-sensor, multi-frequency, collated tactical picture that you're describing is theoretically possible but is decades away from practical field use. We're just beginning to investigate the periphery of the capability. The ability to assemble a usable track and a coherent picture from a gazillion bits of seemingly unrelated data is far beyond our (or our enemy's) capability, at the moment. It will take decades to mature into a combat ready capability. Look how long the Navy has been working on cooperative engagement and they still don't have it. Consider the sophistication required in the software to reliably and seamlessly do this and recall that we can't even perform the simple F-35 ALIS maintenance software despite a decade of development. Consider the inherent weaknesses in data linkage of all these sensors in an ECM enviroment and the likelihood that the network will be able to function in an ECM challenged environment.

      We (and our enemies) are decades away from a functional system. Thus, we should be building simpler, short-lived aircraft that don't need to be designed to function perfectly 50 years from now. We should build competent aircraft that are quickly fielded so that their technology is still relevant and effective and only have a 20 year life. At the end of 20 years when a multi-sensor system is becoming reality, we can design a new aircraft that can deal with that environment.

  13. One of the reasons why I advocate for aircraft with:

    1. Fuel fraction >0.4
    2. High L/D ratios

    Is to minimize the reliance on tankers.

    The other big problem is that a fuel tanker near hostile territory is going to likely need escorts.

    1. L/D ratios?

      Alt, I'm totally with you with creating a new set of aircraft with high fuel fraction.

      But I also think that if they could figure out a tanker now, quickly (S3's? Old A6's from AMARC?) it would help right away.

  14. Lift to drag ratio.

    That calls for a very speak and aerodynamic design, not a fat draggy hull like the F-35.

    Range is a function of the Breguet Equation. Fuel fraction and lift drag ratio are part of the equation. The final part is the fuel consumption of the engine.

    A long legged fighter won't eliminate the need for tankers but will reduce it and has a better combat radius.


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.