The recent post about the Navy’s proposed unmanned tanker, the MQ-25 Stingray (see, "Navy Issues Tanker RFP"), engendered a lot of discussion about tankers, the various aircraft that could fill the role, and the need for tankers, in general.
Before anyone goes any further with this, it is mandatory to reread the excellent article on mission tanking written by guest author Mr. Bustamante (see, “Why The Navy Needs A Really Large Tanker Aircraft”).
Now that you've done that, let's move on.
All of our tanker aircraft discussion is missing one key point – the only point that really matters, actually – and that is the role of the carrier. To make the point with a ridiculous example, if we envision the role of the carrier to be one of sitting in a harbor providing combat air patrol (CAP) then we don’t need a tanker at all, or no more than a small, simple tanker for overhead recovery tanking, as a safety measure. On the other hand, if we envision the carrier conducting 10,000 mile standoff strikes then we need a mammoth mission tanker and some much longer ranged strike aircraft!
So, what is the role of the carrier? I’ve answered this before in both posts (see, “AircraftCarrier – What Future”) and comments but it clearly needs repeating so let’s have at it, again, and see what it tells us about tankers.
Historically, the carrier has been a strike platform both for anti-surface and land attack. Early in WWII, carriers would dart in from a long ways off, under cover of darkness, launch strikes, and retreat before an effective counterattack could be mounted. Later in the war, when proper carrier groups could be assembled, carriers were a bit more willing to stake out a location and stand and conduct strikes secure in the belief that they had sufficient combat power to deal with any counterattack.
Today, we talk about anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zones that extend a thousand miles or more from an enemy’s territory. These zones are established by the range of the weapons that can be brought to bear on any intruder – weapons such as mines, aircraft, land based anti-ship missiles, short range ballistic missiles, air launched anti-ship cruise missiles, submarines, and surface ships. Compounding the problem for an attacking carrier group is the presence of sophisticated surface to air missile defense systems guarding high value bases and targets – systems with radars that can see and strike aircraft for hundreds of miles around. Add to this fast, long ranged defensive aircraft armed with long range air to air missiles and it is almost taken as a given that manned aircraft cannot successfully penetrate and attack a land target defended by a peer enemy.
Increasingly, long range, penetrating strike is a mission given to cruise missiles. That being the case, what role does the carrier serve? Well, the cruise missiles (Tomahawks, at the moment) are mounted on Burkes and submarines. Burkes need to get within several hundred miles of their targets. Depending on how close the targets are to an enemy’s shoreline and how straight a course the missile will fly, the Burkes may need to penetrate hundreds of miles into an A2/AD zone to reach their launch point. They’ll need protection to do that. Some of that protection can be provided by their own Aegis/Standard defense systems, of course, but that alone will not be sufficient especially if we want to heavily load the VLS cells with cruise missiles rather than surface to air missiles. Thus, the ideal escort for the cruise missile shooting Burkes is a carrier. The carrier provides airborne protection for hundreds of miles in every direction and provides an added layer of protection to the Aegis/Standard missile defense. Carrier aircraft also substantially decrease the likelihood of an enemy’s sensor platforms finding and targeting the carrier/Burke force.
Thus, the carrier becomes the escort for the Burkes instead of the other way around. Or, to be more accurate, the carrier and Burkes mutually escort each other with the Burkes providing the group’s striking power.
Cruise missile shooting submarines are fine on their own. Their inherent stealth makes them an ideal Tomahawk shooting platform and negates the need for a close escort. Even here, though, we see another mission for the carrier – to hunt and kill the enemy’s anti-submarine forces, both surface ship and airborne. If the carrier can relieve the pressure on the submarines, the subs can be more effective in the cruise missile shooting role. Note, that I’m talking about dedicated cruise missile shooting submarines – SSGN’s loaded with 150+ cruise missiles, not SSN’s loaded with 12 cruise missiles – those are an ineffective and inefficient means of cruise missile delivery.
Of course, the Air Force’s long range bombers can also launch cruise missiles, if they can survive to reach their launch points. Again, the carrier air wing can provide the local air superiority needed to clear transit lanes and safe launch points for bombers.
So, how does all this relate back to the subject of tankers?
Understanding what the role of the carrier is, we see that the carrier does not, and indeed should not, have the role of deep penetrating, land attack strike against a peer enemy. The job of the carrier and its aircraft is to secure local (though a very large “local”) air control for the purpose of escort. Tankers are needed to facilitate that but not long range, stealthy, penetrating, high capacity tankers. All we need is a medium capability and capacity tanker to support the far flung air superiority aircraft. A fair amount of speed in the tanker would be helpful to get from one location to the next in an expeditious manner. Other than that, the tanker would be a plain, non-descript airframe. Conceptually, a higher speed S-3 Viking would do just fine.
Carriers and tankers are intimately related and yet we persist in discussing them in isolation. When we discuss tankers we must do so with a clear understanding of the role of the carrier. Of course, the role of the carrier comes from having a geopolitical strategy and the associated military strategy – one of my favorite, overarching themes. When we lack a clear strategy we fall into a pattern of haphazard acquisitions, hoping that something we buy may prove useful in the future instead of purpose designing and acquiring assets that we know will support our strategy.
We should also note that as the A2/AD threat is neutralized and the operational distances are greatly reduced, the carrier can revert to its traditional strike role but, by definition, this will involve much shorter distances and require only a medium endurance and medium capacity tanker – just what we described for supporting the carrier’s air superiority fighters.