Monday, September 4, 2017

Navy Aerial Tanker Update

Details on the Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker have been hard to come by, especially the most relevant ones like fuel loads and range.  Now, however, we see some details in a USNI News article (1).

“Air Boss Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker said the service’s goal was for the Navy’s first operational carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle to be able to deliver about 15,000 pounds of fuel at 500 nautical miles from the carrier to the air wing’s strike fighters, which would almost double their operational range.”

So, that’s interesting … 15,000 lbs of fuel at 500 nm from the carrier.  Let’s examine that a bit closer.

An F-18 Super Hornet has an internal fuel capacity of around 14,000 lbs.  So, the unmanned tanker could completely refuel one aircraft.  Of course, that’s not exactly how refueling works.  Each aircraft would receive a lesser amount of fuel, say 5,000 lbs.  Thus, the tanker could refuel three aircraft.  I think you can see where this is going.  If there are 30 aircraft in a strike package, and each needed 5,000 lbs of fuel, it would require 10 tankers.  That’s a LOT of tankers.  Of course, more tankers would be required for the carrier overhead/recovery tanking.  We’re looking at around 16 tankers in our strike/recovery scenario.  Yikes!

Now let’s refer back to that quote and the phrase, “double their operational range”.  Here’s the relevant range figure according to the article.

“The strike range of a carrier air wing is now only about 450 nautical miles – the effective unrefueled radius of a Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.”

That range figure is exceedingly optimistic but, hey, let’s work with it for the sake of discussion.

So, if it took 15,000 lbs of fuel to achieve an operational range of 450 nm, adding 5,000 lbs of extra fuel (36% of the aircraft’s full fuel capacity) isn’t going to double the aircraft’s range, it’s going to increase the range by 36% which is an extra 160 nm.  Yes, I know the range calculations aren’t a simple linear function.  I’m just illustrating the concept.  No matter how you look at it, we aren’t going to double an aircraft’s range by adding a small fraction of additional fuel.  The only way we can double the range is to do a complete refueling which takes us back to a 1:1 tanker:aircraft ratio.  In that case, our example strike of 30 aircraft would require 30 tankers!

Does no one in the Navy run these simple calculations?  Apparently not.

Let’s refer back to the excellent post by guest author George Bustamante, “Why The Navy Needs A Really Large Tanker” (2).  In that article, he lists fuel capacities of various tankers and demonstrates why a capacity of 15,000 lbs of fuel is insufficient for a mission tanker.  For example, the old KA-3 Skywarrior tanker carried 29,000 lbs of fuel  - almost double that of the proposed unmanned tanker.  At the high (and useful) end, the KC-135 carries 150,000 lbs!

The MQ-25 Stingray, with a 15,000 lb fuel capacity barely duplicates the current F-18 Super Hornet tanker capacity of ~16,000 lbs.  The F-18 isn’t considered a mission tanker so how will the MQ-25 which barely duplicates the F-18 tanker’s load suddenly and magically become an effective mission tanker?  Unless we’re going to build lots and lots of these unmanned tankers, I just don’t see this as an effective solution for mission tanking – for overhead/recovery tanking, yes, but mission tanking, no.

So, we have fraudulent claims about doubling the air wing’s range combined with an utterly ineffective mission tanker specification.  I don’t see a good outcome, here.  Yes, it can free up the Hornet from overhead/recovery tanking, which is good, but it leaves the Navy with short ranged aircraft and still no effective mission tanker.  The Navy had an opportunity to do something that could significantly enhance the air wing’s combat effectiveness and apparently have declined to do so.  Baffling.


(1)USNI News website, “MQ-25 Stingray Unmanned Aerial Tanker Could Almost Double Strike Range of U.S. Carrier Air Wing”, Sam LaGrone, 31-Aug-2017,

(2)Navy Matters blog, “Why The Navy Needs A Really Large Tanker”, George Bustamante, 22-Aug-2016,


  1. Presuming the MQ-25 will have the similar total tankage as the single S-3A converted in 1979 to a dedicated tanker, the KS-3A with a capacity of 4,382 gallons/~29,300 pounds. There are 91 parked in the boneyard with an average of 11,000 airframe hours left per Wikipedia.

    The Navy/Congressional pork barrel politics demands shiny new toys, UAV's, so need to spend $+billions on the MQ-25.

    The KS-3A could have operational for years saving the 30% of flying hours by F-18's dedicated to refuelling resulting in their 'death spiral'
    "Currently, 53 percent of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft are unfit to fly. That rises to 62 percent of strike fighters and, as we reported yesterday, 74 percent of Marine F-18 Hornets. Overused, under-maintained, and not replaced, the aircraft are simply wearing out."

  2. Oh, and notice how the admiral talks only about refueling a SH and conveniently forgets to mention the F-35C witch itself carries almost 20.000lb of fuel

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    1. There's nothing wrong with tankers but, yes, you've stated a fundamental truth: better aircraft to begin with. Well said.

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    3. "achievable and affordable"

      Achievable? Eventually. Witness the EMALS or any other recent technology advance. Nothing comes quickly.

      Affordable? You're being awfully optimistic given the Navy's recent history of cost overruns! We'll see.

    4. Looks like the navy is interested in the block 3 super hornet with conformal tanks to extend the range. Will the navy need a tanker with endurance and fuel capacity? What is the range of the MQ-25? The navy may need to rely on air force or marine tanker aircraft,having endurance in a theater of operations.

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    6. "Well it's undoubtedly cheaper than a larger aircraft offloading more fuel would've been
      ... would appear that this project is being meaningfully shaped by cost and scope/risk considerations, which improves its chances of success."

      Two questions for you:

      1. Is it really cheaper than a larger aircraft? While I assume the purchase price would be lower, if we have to buy more of them because of the smaller fuel capacity, will it still be cheaper? If we have to maintain more aircraft, with more technicians/maintainers, and more spare parts, and burn more fuel operating more aircraft, and need more pilots/berthing/heads/galley/food storage is it still cheaper?

      2. Cost should never be the design criteria for any military project and cost should never be the mark of success (it might be the mark of failure!). Military equipment is DESIGNED FOR A MISSION NOT A COST. The military is not a business and cannot be run as a business case. It does no good to save a lot of money on this tanker (for sake of discussion) if it can't fulfill its mission which was supposed to have been mission tanking. How much of a success can it be if it can't perform the desired mission? The military has a problem - they build to all kinds of criteria other than mission performance. That's how we get Zumwalt's that have no ammo, LCS's that have no modules or combat capability, F-35's that have no useful range, Burkes that we don't need, etc.

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  4. After Mr Bustamante's article, the KA-6D delivered 16.000 pounds at 400 miles. Very similar to the MQ-25. So, with this new aircraft, the air wing is just getting back a capacity lost with the withdrawal of the KA-6D.

  5. Considering some drones are going to be unavailable due to maintenance and repair, you might need 20 in order to get 16 into the air.

  6. "Does no one in the Navy run these simple calculations? Apparently not."

    CNO, you should have realised by now that this is all about getting money out of Congress. A few Congress-creatures may have staff who can do these calculations, or even more precise ones, but the political side of the game is based on emotions, not numbers.

  7. According to Wikipedia, the F-35-C variant internal fuel is 19,624 lb, for a combat radius of 640 nmi. You'll need 1.3 MQ-25's for 1.0 F-35C's. Maybe you'll need MQ-25's to refuel other MQ-25's, in order to loiter to refuel the F-35's. Soon the aircraft carrier will have more MQ-25's than actual warplanes......

    The MQ -25 obviously has a role to play, but the increase in range won't be double.

  8. Would it be huge problem to make Stingrays simply bigger? If navy wants stealth aerial tanker/bomber they need something like B-2's. Yeah B-2's are old, they already closed production line and conversion would be also expensive as hell. BUT someone in right mind cant think that every fighter will have its own personal small tanker! So clearly you need a bigger ones.

    They need to decide if they want to have carrier stationed tanker x multirole aicraft, stealth x partialy stealth x non stealth aircraft. Even thinking about buying a large fleet of small tanker drones is, in my eyes, incredibly stupid.

  9. The estimate of double range may not be so far off. Let's compare the F-18 to a car. Taking off from an aircraft carrier is like drag racing. Ascending up to cruising altitude is like driving up a long steep hill. Cruising at altitude is comparable to driving along a flat highway at 65mph. Now think in terms of fuel consumption for these driving/flying activities. A fully loaded F-18 will burn a lot of its fuel just getting up to altitude. Topping off fuel tanks at altitude will greatly increase range.

    Otherwise, this article is more of the excellent analysis we get at this blog.


  10. "the old KA-3 Skywarrior tanker carried 29,000 lbs of fuel - almost double that of the proposed unmanned tanker."

    I think you started comparing apples and oranges here. You need to subtract out the fuel needed to get the Skywarrior out to 500 miles - around 4k-5k pounds. So that means the Skywarrior could deliver ~25k pounds at 500 miles compared to 15k pounds for the Stingray. More to be sure, but still not sufficient to get entire air wings refueled without a dozen-plus tankers.

    I think some of the frustration with the limited range is a product of carrier-based refueling instead of the design of the Stingray. Others can speak more intelligently about the weight limits of carrier aircraft, but I was under the assumption the KA-3 was about as heavy as a carrier-based aircraft could reasonably get.

    1. "You need to subtract out the fuel needed to get the Skywarrior out to 500 miles"

      Here's the quote from Global Security website,

      "The KA-3 could deliver 29,000 lb of fuel at 460 miles"

      I don't know how else to interpret that other than what it says.

      "not sufficient to get entire air wings refueled without a dozen-plus tankers."

      True ... and false. It all depends on what you want to accmplish. If all you need is to tack on 50 extra miles to get the aircraft home, a single tanker could refuel an entire strike package. If you want to literally double the range of the strike package then you need several/many tankers depending on their offload capacities.

    2. "under the assumption the KA-3 was about as heavy as a carrier-based aircraft could reasonably get."

      You've indirectly brought up a great point. There are two ways to approach increasing carrier aircraft strike range: one is to have more and bigger tankers and the other is to have inherently longer range strike aircraft.

      The tanker method is the least efficient. The tankers take up deck space, require maintenance, cost money to purchase, require pilots and maintainers (even unmanned aircraft require pilots, just not in the cockpit - we aren't totally AI yet), etc. And, as you suggest, there is a practical limit on size/weight of a tanker on a carrier.

      The second approach is the preferred one. This is why the F-35C is so maddening. It does not offer the usable range that the Navy needs for the foreseeable future. The Navy did not design the F-35 for its needs (CONOPS, CONOPS, CONOPS!).

    3. To your first point - My apologies. I think my source is inaccurate.

      To your second point - I have always been a sucker for innovation, so I don't mind the F-35C. Of course, the negative effects it had on the A and C versions because of unnecessary insistence on a shared design is not worth the price.

      This is somewhat outside the box, but what about developing a Super Stallion tanker (and lilly pad platform ships from which to take off)? The max takeoff weight is something like 73k pounds with an empty weight of 33k pounds. That should allow a payload at least comparable to the KA-3 without the needed transit fuel. I know rotor wash can be intense, and the max speed of the helicopter is near the lower end of the speed envelope for fighters, but if helos can receive fuel from planes than theoretically they should be able to give it.

      Building lilly pad ships might be easier (and more realistic) than getting a new long-range fighter mass produced.

    4. Hey, no problem. We can all check each others sources. That's why I always suggest citing the source in the comment when quoting data that is not commonly know. It allows us all to cross check data. I don't care about who's right or wrong - only that we get the facts correct in the end.

      Moving on ...

      A helo cannot keep up with a fixed wing strike package. Theoretically, it could launch well ahead of the package so as to arrive at the refuel point on time. Helos often have max altitude limits that are below fixed wing desired operating levels. I know nothing about the Stallion so that may or may not be applicable. As you note, the max helo speed may be too low for the fixed wing aircraft to safely refuel.

      Lily pad ships are an idea that keeps coming up and it's got serious flaws. On paper it sounds good but in practice would be problematic. Again, getting a slow, non-stealthy lily pad ship out to a useful location well away from any protection and, presumably, deep into enemy territory and expecting it to survive long enough to do its job is awfully optimistic and depends on the enemy cooperating by not looking for it. If the lily pad ship is found and sunk, the entire strike is aborted or lost depending on whether the strike flight is outgoing or returning.

    5. Well, I was envisioning "true" lilly pads - i.e. less than 100 ft in length with a platform across the entire top of the ship. One helo per ship and no hangar.

  11. CNOPS- Your overall analysis is excellent. I agree- just more small beer for us.... One can see the requirements he sort of discusses just rolling back and the capability decreasing...Hope is not a strategy...

    Naval Aviation "organic carrier tanking" is always viewed as a mission tanking problem as defined above and by the Air Boss in his interview. Please consider there is also the overhead/recovery tanking mission to be done concurrently, and always, for every carrier event that flies jets...consider it. However, mission tanking is generally viewed as the most important, both here is these blogs and in the news, and is often seen as a "linear" problem that needs to be solved. Sure it does...

    It seems there are no real and viable options or even workarounds/gimmicks to extend the attacking airwing outward from its pitiable capability, or to maintain real and persistent fighter coverage in a grid on the threat axis (AAW).

    Bigger is not always better, more efficient is always better... IMO, the MQ-25 tanker must be a carrier suitable vehicle that has a large flexible envelope and can carry fuel back aboard not transferred or inflexible, leading to high dump rates like the F-18 E/F.

    Don't forget the fuel required to get out to 500 nm as the CNO "wishes for", even with Hi-Hi-Hi profile. Please, do the math, Skywarriors burnt about 6K lbs/HR, KA-6D about the same at 5.5K/hr (2k reserve case 1) 1+20 for out and in... That means the A-3 could give about 12K at 500 nm and KA-6 a little less. On the other hand an S-3B modified to carry more internal fuel (not a big engineering deal) and also unmanned (saving weight transferable to fuel), could easily carry 25K of fuel, yet because the same mission out and in would burn fuel at about 3000 lbs/HR, the slightly slower KS-3B would burn about 9K lbs out/in leaving an achievable total give of 15K lbs at 500 nm. That is because the S-3 is a hi-bypass turbofan engine and has a larger wing while A-3/A-6 are turbojets, hence the burn rate "delta".

    Here it comes. Yes, I always push for "S-3 re-use" because that vehicle still has life and is better designed than anything out there that can conduct the mission from scratch. Basically, the Viking is "aero-flexible" from a design standpoint, is inherently envelope/fuel efficient, and exceeds carrier suitability requirements right out of the box (!!!) and is "available" at zero cost as Nick, up top describes...

    Everything else proposed in the posts from the past (Whales/Intruders Forever), or any proposed new composite design from the "Big 4" vendors as THIS PROGRAM (MQ-25)seems to be heading, will NEVER be able to accomplish that by 2020 like the Navy wants (lol) or even given the standard 10 years to develop a prototype.... Trust me. Meanwhile the SuperHornets will fly to zero fatigue life doing "tanking" 5-wet and the carrier airwing will continue as inefficiently and with diminishing capability as before and today, with or without the F-35C...


    1. Regarding the KA-3 tanker, the only statement I see is,

      "The KA-3 could deliever 29,000 lb of fuel at 460 miles."

      That's from the Global Security website. Lacking a NATOPS manual or some such source, I take the statement at face value that it had the fuel to travel 400+ miles AND DELIVER 29,000 LBS OF FUEL. If you have a definitive source that says otherwise, please share it.

    2. "SuperHornets will fly to zero fatigue life doing "tanking" 5-wet"

      The situation is made worse since Hornets no longer fly 5-wet. They are operationally limited to 3 tanks which means more aircraft are required to fill the same need which leads to even faster fatigue rates for the fleet.

    3. CNOPS,

      My burn rate figures come from direct knowledge/experience. We use this information in flight as tanker/or lead and when controlling them from them ship to calculate how much time one has left...Most of the twin TJ/TF jets of that era including the Turkey, burned about 5-6K of JP per hour of flight. That's a fact Jack. I ain't refuting Global Security webpages that haven't been updated for years but remember those numbers come from the last KA-3Ds at Alameda which operated from the beac and not embarked...I never saw an A-3 tanker embarked 76-96.

      BTW, you and others here aren't FULLY taking into account the 500 nm Mission Tanking/15K give planning. The unaccounted for 1+15 out/in (7 miles/min) (total 2hrs+20min), 10 minutes to give and 15 overhead with reserve, etc. That's about 3 hrs at 5-6K per hour. 15-18 K needed to fly out give and then RTB mother. BTW, Navy pilots ALWAYS round up... this ain't a board game and they aren't suicidal...

      In reality CNOPS, I don't really care about the benchmark KA-3/KA-6 tanker capabilities/numbers anymore because those craft were beasts and can never be recreated. I tire when I see them discussed all the time.. There are lessons there but they are not reproducible today institutionally/industrially, for what this generation of knuckleheads envisions.. For sure. ...

      You are right about 5 VS 3 wet Rhino tanker but you can bet that those E/Fs that will undergo SLEP (IE new center barrels..) at $20 Million apiece will go back to carrying 5 soonest!...Of course I've know these things for over 10 years and even more when I think back on it...

      Burn rate out/in for the mission tankers, the YO-YO tanker give for the grid, and of course the all-present mission tanker with enough give day/night to trap 'em all aboard safely. That's how a mission tanker pilot/air operations officer or CAG Operations officer, CAG/CVN CAPT thinks, see? Or should I say, how those people USED to think..., even the present Air Boss, maybe, if he looks back... BTW, if just one tanker in the plan checks "sour" then the best laid plans of men crumble, and quickly. That's why we always have manned spares on deck.. all this adds up of course. LOL.

      Only the "quality" of our post 9-11 rifle toting enemy, and Bill Clintons Peace Dividend now extracted, has left us in this capability malaise and I do not feel positive we can recover from... I don't trust them...and going composite and digital technology alone, won't solve basic power, carriage/lift and carrier suitability shortcomings we have experience the past 20 years..


    4. "I ain't refuting Global Security webpages"

      Their statement is pretty clear. Whatever fuel was required to get out 400+ miles was IN ADDITION to the 29,000 lbs delivered. Now, whether that statement is true or whether whoever wrote it misunderstood the situation and misspoke, I don't know. Lacking a flight data manual or some other source, I'll accept their statement and mark it with a mental question mark.

      As you go on to say, it's not really relevant beyond noting that the Navy once had the capability to operate larger tankers (whether they actually did so or not, again I do not know).

      Larger tankers, whatever the exact amount of fuel they could deliver, simply serve to illustrate the entire tanker issue.

      The larger question is whether the Navy now needs a long range, penetrating mission tanker. My view is that long range, penetrating strike is no longer a valid carrier aircraft mission and, therefore, there is no need for the associated tanker.

      On the other hand, I do see very long range air superiority as a vital carrier aircraft role - the main carrier aircraft role, in fact - and there is a need for a reasonably long range tanker for that, though not exactly the penetrating mission tanker. Long range CAP and intercept missions will require reasonably far ranging tanker support.

    5. Why does it matter about the A-3 metrics as a tanker? Don't get hung up on it. The KA-3D never really served as a tanker embarked (on carrier) for many deployments. Certainly not in the 76-98 period I was out there. 29K seems a lot to me.. Maybe as a Yo-yo tanker.

      Remember that "organically" (within the airwing), an "efficient" flexible tanker is more important than a big one or a fast one or a composite one...

      As I have stated here before- As a tactical mission tanker all organic mission tanking is tactical and the SuperHornet itself is adequate/fairly efficient 5 wet (w/jettison option), but as you point out and we are suffering from, because you lose a striker or two for each tanker (remember that turning tanker spare I talked about...) used for the event and of course the FLE penalty for just flying it... Remember the word "tactical" is critical for mission tanking.

      Rather, it is those pesky "event to event" (1+15) overhead and recovery tanker sorties that drives the numbers of striker to tanker ratio higher and shows the inefficiency of the present airwing. That is why I pound that fact yet it rarely registers on most not intimately familiar with carrier operations because of the linear thought processes. The Air Boss knows this too and also the shortcomings. He would have to, having operated as a strike fighter pilot in the 1980-90's. But apparently his status quo seems good enough to him... And he is the Boss, not I.

      There are many carrier organic tanking permutations possible IF you have the right mix of aircraft. I have seen it all when we had a plethora of hoses in the air.. We could maintain a 360 degree extended cap station for AAW w/thirsty Toms for day(s)using a combination of grid and yo-yo tankers. We also planned for those 1000nm power projection/WAS missions "organically" (no USAF wet wing) using similar "tanking tactics" because we had variety with KA-6D centerline drogue and A-6, A-7, S-3 buddy store tankers. despite this we also had to maintain the overhead/recovery tanker.

      Those days are gone but we can have some improvement in the present lousy status quo IF, IF, IF the right platform with the right blend of performance is selected as the vehicle...


    6. The full passage from GlobalSecurity is:

      “The best aerial tanker the Navy ever had was a modification of the Douglas A3D (after 1962, A-3) attack plane that could lift an offload of 3,350 gallons, or 21,775 pounds. The Navy did its own refueling with Douglas KA-3 tankers and later with Grumman KA-6 tankers. The KA-3 could deliever 29,000 lb of fuel at 460 miles, about 2.2 full F4J tanks. The KA-6 only delivered half as much fuel, and the S-3 carried even less. Strike forces launched from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin were accompanied by tankers for a final refueling before they went to the target. Tankers were held in standby orbits for attackers returning from the target, and a tanker was always in orbit over the aircraft carrier in the event a returning airplane, almost out of fuel, missed its "trap" and had to circle for a second attempt at landing.”

      Global Security also list 73,000 lbs as the max catapult take-off weight for the A-3B. The “basic” weight of the A-3B is listed as 37,545 lbs. If the difference is all fuel, that’s 35,455 lbs of fuel. If the 29,000 figure is to be believed, that leaves just 6,455 lbs to get to 460 miles with no safety margin. The A-3 skywarrior association lists the cruise speed as 520 mph, so the A-3 requires approximately 1.8 hours of flight time to reach that radius. Leaving just 1000 lbs for unusable fuel and fuel for wave-offs and go-arounds (1,000 lbs less than b2 calls for), the fuel burn rate would have to be, at most, 3,030 lbs/hours.

      I can only find TSFC values for the J57-P-43WB used on early KC-135s and not the J57-P-10 used on the A-3s. The P43WB generates 11,200 lbs at 0.775 (lb/hr) /lbf. Wikipedia lists the TSFC of the JT3C-7 civil variant of the J57 higher at “0.785 lb/(h lbf) (22.24 g/(s kN)) @ Take-off, SLS, ISA and 0.909 lb/(h lbf) (25.75g/(s kN)) @ Max Cruise 3550 lbf M0.85,35000 ft,ISA”. The JT3C-7 generates “12030 lbf (53.5 kN) @ Take-off, SLS, ISA.” We’ll be generous and assume that there’s some sort of mistake and use the P43WB TSFC of 0.775 (lb/hr) /lbf at 3,550 lbf to estimate a cruise fuel flow rate of approximately 2,751 lb/hr.

      In an extremely ideal and unrealistic scenario (e.g., no full burn while taxiing, not accounting for increased fuel consumption at takeoff and climb out, delays, headwinds, etc., etc.) the KA-3 just might be able to make it to 460 miles with 29,000 lbs fuel to give. Under real-world conditions, I’m inclined to believe b2’s 5-6K lb/hr unless you don’t mind coming back aboard on a SAR helo. The 21,775 lbs fuel figure sounds a lot more reasonable at 400+ miles, and even that’s probably generous.

      If the MQ-25 has a single non-afterburning F404 derivative and is a flying wing like the X-47B with a high fuel fraction and possibly drop tanks, I think you might be surprised at how much of the fuel can be offloaded.

    7. This may be an explanation: from the

      "The full depth wasn't needed for smaller nukes and conventional bombs, so a removable auxiliary fuel tank was added to the top of the bomb bay. ... The extra fuel capacity became particularly useful when the Whale began to be utilized for inflight refueling;"

      So, the KA-3B tanker version apparently had an extra fuel tank installed in the upper bomb bay. I have not yet been able to find out the size of the tank.

    8. I'm not sure the bomb bay tank changes much. The max takeoff weight is still the max takeoff weight. The extra internal tanks just eliminate weight and drag versus carrying the fuel externally.

      Now a UAV the size and configuration of the A-3 with high bypass turbofans or propfans, modern high-lift devices, built using modern materials, and shot off the deck with EMALS should get you at least that 29,000 lbs at 460 miles.

    9. "Global Security also list 73,000 lbs as the max catapult take-off weight for the A-3B."

      aviastar website (
      lists the max takeoff weight as 82,001 lb which agrees with the Skywarrior website. It also lists the empty weight as 39410 lb which leaves a theoretical max fuel load of 42,591 lb.

      The Navy had originally specified 100,000 lb as the aircraft max design weight so they obviously believed they could launch it.

    10. Global Security also lists max takeoff weight (land) at 78k lbs. I suspect that the 82k lbs number is on land with water injection and the 78k lbs number is on land without water injection. Personally, I'm more willing to accept the numbers from a source that differentiates between land and carrier takeoffs and landings than one that does not. Clearly, they were pulling these shenanigans back then too.... Maybe b2 will shed some light on this?

      The F-111B would have tipped the scales at 88k lbs or more, so I think the issue is the aircraft and not the catapult.

    11. I think Global Security is wrong. I calculate around 23,000 lbs total - even with 4 300 gallon external fuel tanks.

    12. "I think Global Security is wrong. I calculate around 23,000 lbs total"

      Not quite sure what you're saying here. The empty weight of the A-3 is around 39,000 lbs and it can take off, obviously, so I assume you're referring to the payload weight. The max takeoff weight is somewhere between 70,000 and 82,000 lbs depending on the source. Thus, the payload weight is 31,000 to 43,000 lbs. Of course, that includes fuel weight and ordnance.

      I don't know how you're coming up with 23,000 lbs. Why don't you explain your calculation and offer a source to support it.

  12. EMALS can't launch heavy aircraft anyway. In the near future, F/A-18s will launch with little fuel and get tanked up after they launch. So we will need a dozen tankers per carrier, which is doable since there will not be enough F-35s. We can convert the first 100 F-35s into tankers since this will be cheaper than upgrading them to the final fighter product. All this assumes EMALS is made reliable/safe.

    1. EMALS absolutely is designed to launch the heaviest aircraft the Navy envisions operating and then some. They haven't expanded the EMALS operational envelope that far yet but it will come.

      Modern aircraft typically launch with partial fuel loads and then top off over the carrier. This is not a problem with EMALS - it's just standard operating procedure.

  13. One last thing that comes to mind, the MQ-25 is basically the X-47B with refueling probes attached to it, right?

    Ok but since the F-35C will be carrying even more fuel than a F-18E , why didn't the navy just launch a contest for a new completely new vehicle being able to carry 25.000/30.000lb of fuel.
    Besides the X-47B is designed with a low observable airframe, so if this is a pure tanker UAV couldn't they why not go with a newer bulkier airframe witch can haul more fuel?

    I mean why didn't they walk the whole mind and asked for a totally new design dedicated for a tanker, or was this just staged so that the X-47B could win easily ??

    1. There are four unmanned tanker competitors (Lockheed, Northrop, General Atomics, Boeing) and each has their own design. Some are flying wings and some are conventional wing/body/tail designs. It is by no means a given that the design will be a modified X-47B.

      As to why the Navy didn't ask for a significantly larger tanker aircraft, I don't know. That is the question, isn't it, if they really wanted a long range mission tanker. Why does the Navy make any of the idiotic decisions they do? Who knows?!

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    4. "the current concept is as large as can be accommodated using a single, off-the-shelf engine within a well-validated airframe design"

      You seem pretty certain about what aircraft will be chosen. Actually, unless you possess inside knowledge, there are four different airframes competing for this project and there is no particular reason why any of them are limited to a single engine. Definitely, none of them are what I would consider a well-validated airframe design.

      You may be correct but there is nothing in the public domain that would seem to support your belief. Care to expand on your reasoning?

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    7. A "flying wing" is inherently unstable requiring millions of lines of code to digitally control it, carrier unsuitable right out of the box, and probably aerodynamically/stress/loads incapable of large offloads or immediate recovery fully laden...

      It will take 10 years to IOC AFTER 1st prototype, just like the F-35. Wanta bet?


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  14. The X-47 tanker seems less a serious concept and more a desperate attempt to keep the development program going. It's simply a bone to throw to Congress to justify keeping the funding.

    Sad part is that the x-47 isn't being continued as an attack or even ISR. That 15,000 lbs of fuel to share could instead be a a ton of sensors and a couple guided munitions. But that might embarrass the F-35 advocates if it works.

    The obvious solution for refueling is an S-3 rebuilt as a dedicated tanker. But once a decision is made, the Navy never can admit there is a solution better than what they've chosen.

    1. See my comment reply to Storm Shadow. It is not at all certain that the X-47B will be the basis for the new tanker. There are four competitors, each with their own aircraft design.

  15. What is getting forgotten here is that the A-3 was a deep strike aircraft before the remaining airframes were converted into the KA3/EKA3 role. Totally forgotten too is the bomber versions could also be fitted with a tanker module.

    They had a 1000nm radius carrying 10,000 lbs internally.

    Sure is a shame that the USN gave up range in its Air Groups. Check out the number of A-3's present in this pic taken in Nov 1960 for the Jan 61 edition of NavAir News. THE Independence deployed with 18 aircraft(VAH-1), and VAH-9 deployed on the Sara with 12 which was the standard for "big decks" of the day...

    They could reach out and Touch somebody!

    1. A cool picture no doubt, but things change.

      In that air group you have the capability to deliver 300,000 lbs of ordinance to 1,000 nm via the A-3s. And that's perfectly inline with my calculations above. That sure sounds like a lot! But is it in the grand scope of things?

      A single B-1B can deliver 60,000 lbs (24 x 2,500 lbs class weapons) of ordinance, or more, further and can easily refuel from a tanker outside a 1,000 nm A2/AD zone. Therefore, 5, and possibly 4, B-1Bs can deliver the same ordinance to the release point of the A-3s. I'm no logistician, but I think it might be easier to support five large aircraft and 20 respective jet engines versus 30 large carrier aircraft and 60 respective jet engines, let alone the carriers to launch them.

      Maybe it's time we consider that the Navy isn't completely incompetent, at least not all the time, and can do the math as well as you or I. But that also doesn't mean that the Navy won't SELL aircraft like the F-35C as a long-range, penetrating strike aircraft, even though it knows it really isn't one, to secure funding that might otherwise go to another program in another service, like, I don't know, the LRSB program.

      "Sometimes when I try to understand a person's motives, I play a little game...." - Petyr Baelish

      Were those A-3s really any more effective or efficient at delivering nukes than SAC's B-52 in the '50s and at delivering conventional munitions than the Air Force's B-52s ever since? Maybe there is a reason we go through the trouble of keeping B-52s flying and putting ordinance on target while the A-3s have gone by the wayside and spent the better part of their careers as tanker and ISR aircraft. Yes, the B-52s didn't experience the wear and tear of operating from a carrier, but I think there's still a lesson to be learned there.

    2. You're falling into the trap of considering capabilities in isolation - the load of an A-3 vs. the load of a B-1. They're two different generations! We might as well compare the Fokker triplane to the F-22.

      Sure, if all we're going to do is compare payloads, the larger aircraft "wins". However, we need to look at all the factors that enter into evaluating an aircraft's worth.

      For example, the carrier is mobile and can take its aircraft to advantageous locations from which to launch strikes. The 1986 attack on Libya, Operation El Dorado Canyon, demonstrated the weakness inherent in the Air Force fixed base concept when France, Spain, and Italy all denied the US overflight rights resulting in massive increases in distance, flight time, refueling, logistics, and political maneuvering. What could have been a simple carrier strike turned into a massive international political and logistical effort to get a handful of bombs on target. In contrast, a single carrier could have generated the entire strike from a single location, through a single command, with no international political gymnastics required.

      Your simplistic assessment of the cost of AF bombers versus carrier aircraft failed to include any of the real costs such as those I described for the example operation. Further, you casually note and include the cost/logistics of the carriers, "let alone the carriers to launch them", without equally noting the cost/logistics of operating and maintaining an entire Air Force base to launch bombers. The bombers don't just magically appear out of thin air. Which costs more to operate, a carrier or an AF base? I don't know but I suspect it's the AF base by a huge margin! Which is the bigger logistic challenge? Again, I don't know but I suspect it's the AF base by a wide margin.

      There's also the issue of numbers in the wider context. We built 280+ A-3's. We built only 100 B-1's. We built only 20(?) B-2's. While a large AF bomber may be able to carry a larger payload, they are far more susceptible to the impact of attrition.

      When we look at operations and platforms in a wider context we see that there are advantages and disadvantages to all. AF bombers have their place and so do carrier aircraft.

      All that said, I don't advocate large scale, long range carrier strike aircraft for reasons that I've repeatedly stated.

      My point is that I want to ensure reasoned, logical, balanced analysis against the backdrop of the overall context as opposed to isolated nitpicking arguments.

      Carry on.

    3. “You're falling into the trap of considering capabilities in isolation - the load of an A-3 vs. the load of a B-1. They're two different generations!

      I also compared the longevity and roles of the B-52 and A-3.

      "For example, the carrier is mobile and can take its aircraft to advantageous locations from which to launch strikes. The 1986 attack on Libya, Operation El Dorado Canyon, demonstrated the weakness inherent in the Air Force fixed base concept when France, Spain, and Italy all denied the US overflight rights resulting in massive increases in distance, flight time, refueling, logistics, and political maneuvering. What could have been a simple carrier strike turned into a massive international political and logistical effort to get a handful of bombs on target.”

      It’s worth pointing out that the F-111s weren’t the only aircraft dropping bombs that night.

      “In contrast, a single carrier could have generated the entire strike from a single location, through a single command, with no international political gymnastics required.”

      Actually, there were three in the Gulf of Sirte/Sidra and we sent in the F-111s anyway.

      According to Wikipedia, the raid included 15 A-6Es, 6 A-7Es, and 6 F/A-18s from the America, Coral Sea, and Saratoga stationed in the Gulf of Sirte. The fact that those THREE carriers, while each is smaller than a Nimitz/Ford, couldn’t handle this ONE raid with the time for preparation, or lack thereof, available from a few hundred miles offshore without support from 18 F-111s and 4 EF-111s stationed in the UK illustrates the point that a comparison between the A-3 and B-52 makes. Large "strategic" bombers are a more efficient method of delivering large weapons, even if they have to fly great distances to their targets/release points. Fuel is the one resources that we can replenish relatively easily in flight.

      Note that none of the naval aircraft were dropping 2K lbs weapons on the raid. How much more would it have stressed the air wings of those carriers to put those 2k lbs weapons on target during that raid? And it’s not like Libya had built up a 1,000 mile A2/AD zone either.

      The F-111s flew about 6,400 miles on that raid. We’ve been operating B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s from bases in Diego Garcia, Guam, and CONUS, bases thousands of miles distant from their targets, for decades. And those bombers have gone after target sets in Iraq and Yugoslavia that were just as challenging, if not more so, as those in Libya.

      We also have to consider how carrier attrition will impact naval aviation. And airfield attrition. And normalizing operational costs versus capability and long-term maintenance costs....

      I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t already know with respect to why naval aircraft aren’t ideal for long-range strike, but:

      “My point is that I want to ensure reasoned, logical, balanced analysis against the backdrop of the overall context as opposed to isolated nitpicking arguments.”

    4. "The fact that those THREE carriers, while each is smaller than a Nimitz/Ford, couldn’t handle this ONE raid"

      The selection of strike assets had nothing to do with military capability and everything to do with military politics. The Air Force and Navy both desperately wanted in on the action in order to justify their budgets. The resulting split in strike assets between the two services was a military political decision, not a tactical one. A single carrier could have easily handled the attack as could a single AF base. In point of fact, a carrier could have handled the attack easier, with no geopolitical machinations, and far fewer resources.

    5. "The resulting split in strike assets between the two services was a military political decision, not a tactical one."

      That’s not at all clear and is heavily disputed by the Air Force. According to Walter J. Boyne in “El Dorado Canyon” (published March 1999 in Air Force Magazine, link at the bottom):

      “The composition of the El Dorado Canyon force has stirred controversy. In his 1988 book, Command of the Seas, former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. said the entire raid could have been executed by aircraft from America and Coral Sea.This claim cropped up again in 1997; in a letter to Foreign Affairs, Marine Maj. Gen. John H. Admire, an operations planner in US European Command at the time, said, “Sufficient naval forces were available to execute the attacks.” Both attributed USAF’s participation to a bureaucratic need to placate the Air Force.”

      “The fact of the matter, however, is the Air Force had long been preparing for such a raid. When Washington decreed that there would be only one attack, it became absolutely necessary to mount a joint operation because only the inclusion of heavy USAF attack aircraft could provide the firepower needed to ensure that the operation would be more than a pinprick attack.”

      “The Navy had only America and Coral Sea on station. According to Air Force officials involved in the plans, these two carriers did not have sufficient aircraft for effective attacks against all five targets in both Tripoli and Benghazi. At least one more carrier, and perhaps two, would have been required, said these officers.”

      “The act of calling in a third or even a fourth carrier to handle both targets would have caused a delay and given away any remaining element of surprise. This fact was pointed out to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr. Crowe himself recognized that F-111s were needed if both Tripoli and Benghazi were to be struck at more or less the same time. They would also add an element of surprise and a new axis of attack.”

      “For these reasons, the JCS Chairman recommended to Reagan and the National Security Council that the United States use both Air Force and Navy aircraft in the raids.”

      Similarly, the Global Security article for the raid states (citing an Air War College Research Report):

      “Mission planners decided, as part of the effort to attain tactical surprise, to hit all five targets simultaneously. This decision had crucial impact on nearly every aspect of the operation since it meant that the available US Navy resources could not perform the mission unilaterally. The only two types of aircraft in the US inventory capable of conducting a precision night attack were the Navy's A-6s and the Air Force's F-111s. The Navy had two aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean at the time planning for the raid: The America and The Coral Sea. Each had ten A-6 aircraft, but these were not the total of 32 aircraft estimated as required to successfully hit all five targets with one raid. The closest F-111s were based in the United Kingdom (UK); and use of these UK based aircraft dramatically affected the scope and complexity of the operation. Planning was even further compounded when the French refused to grant authority to overfly France. This refusal increased the distance of the flight route from Great Britain to Tripoli by about 1300 nautical miles each way, added 6-7 hours of flight time for the pilots and crews, and forced a tremendous amount of additional refueling support from tanker aircraft.”

    6. Okay, those sources may be biased against the Navy. Other than the sources mentioned by Boyne, here’s what another voice in the Navy has to say about the matter:

      “For ELDORADO CANYON, the decision was made to employ a joint strike force of both Navy carrier-based A6s and USAF F-111s. The basis of that decision has been vigorously debated since the day after the strike. Some critics have argued that the USAF participation was purely political--that the excessive distance from England to Tripoli made their use unsound. Others maintain that the additional combat power the F-111s offered was critical to the success of the mission. Though the issue may never be resolved, it appears the CINCEUR simply employed the most capable combination of medium attack assets he had available in theater.”

      David R. Arnold, Lieutenant Commander, USN, “Conflict With Libya: Operational Art in the War on Terrorism, Naval War College, November 1993, S/N 0102-LF-014-6603.

      It seems like we are unlikely to ever get a complete, unbiased answer. If you have additional sources that contradict any of this, I’d be happy to take them into consideration.

      It does seem like Wikipedia is incorrect in that the Saratoga was not directly involved in the raid. It appears that the Sara was deployed in Med for operations against Libya but departed before the raid. Whether or not all three could have participated in the raid if it had been conducted earlier, I can’t tell. See “US Cold War Aircraft Carriers: Forrestal, Kitty Hawk and Enterprise Classes” by Brad Elward.

      Perhaps you are correct in that a single carrier having the exact types and numbers of aircraft required could have executed the raid from “150-200 miles off shore.” See the Global Security article. Excluding the tankers and 6 spare F-111s, the El Dorado Canyon raid included 53 strike, SEAD, and EW aircraft according to Global Security. This number also excludes fighter escorts and the CAP. Add in spare and contingency aircraft (e.g., to conduct CSAR missions as soon as practicable) and those down with maintenance issues, maybe it’s still possible that a single Nimitz could have struck a similar set of targets, from close range, against an ill-equipped enemy. Even in this scenario, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a single carrier to conduct anything more than a one-off raid at this scale.

    7. Air Force sources state that the only way to conduct the raid was with AF assets. Navy sources claim they could have handled the attack with the carriers on site. ... A stunning split in opinion that no one could have foreseen!

      Consider the logic of bureaucracy and human nature. The Air Force was undoubtedly banging on tables, demanding a "seat" at the attack for obvious political reasons. They undoubtedly formulated a multitude of reasons why it was mandatory to be included. How many of those reasons were valid and how many were pure political maneuvering, who knows. Equally, I have no doubt that the Navy as assuring everyone that they could do the job easily with no AF assistance whether that assistance would have made the task easier or not.

      Bureaucratic infighting - no surprise. However, it makes after-the-fact truth finding quite a challenge. Personally, I find the Secretary of the Navy AT THE TIME OF THE ATTACK to be the most compelling "witness". Ultimately, however, this type of discussion is fun but pointless.

      Returning to the point that precipitated this discussion, my goal for this blog is to ensure balanced, objective, logical analysis that considers the overall context. My personal pet peeve is analysis/comparisons in isolation.

    8. Some more interesting perspective ... the mission expanded significantly from the original, focused task.

      For example, from,

      "The original plan called for a raid by 18 F-111Fs if France gave us overflight clearance or just six aircraft if we had to take the longer journey around the European continent."

      Similarly, from,

      "At nearly the last moment, the strike force increased from six to eighteen F-11Is, ..."

      The mission was a classic example of making a mission much harder than it needed to be out of a desire to include the Air Force.

    9. Two more points and I'll stand down for now.


      "Personally, I find the Secretary of the Navy AT THE TIME OF THE ATTACK to be the most compelling "witness"."

      Fair enough, but this guys was also CJCS at the time of the attack, and Boyne alleges that he saw the merit of the AF's argument:

      You'd think he'd at least be sympathetic to the Navy's position.


      "Ultimately, however, this type of discussion is fun but pointless."

      With that I have no problem in agreeing 100%! ^_' Have a good weekend....

    10. I also don't mind this type of discussion on the blog because it reviews history - never a bad thing!

  16. Yeah, but c'mon really
    the "15,000 pounds of fuel at 500 nautical miles" says it all.. besides the other competitors do not have carrier based UAV experience that is so complex as does Northrop have with the X-47B

    Boenig and LM do not show any real intent so far, just for PR's sake they could at least take a mothballed S-3 and start converting it into something and advertise it until now.

    As for general Atomics i thing they have the smallest chance, no naval experience what so ever.

    1. So you see experience as a critical factor? Hmm ...

      How many naval vessels had Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics/Austal built before being selected to build the 55 ship class of LCS?

      What experience did Lockheed have in vertical take off and landing aircraft prior to being awarded the F-35 contract?

      Could experience, perhaps, not be as important to the Navy as you suggest?

      Here are the assumed offerings which would form the basis for each company's MQ-25 proposal:

      Northrop - X-47B
      Lockheed - RQ-170 Sentinel
      Boeing - unknown
      General Atomics - Predator C Sea Avenger.

  17. "Each aircraft would receive a lesser amount of fuel, say 5,000 lbs."

    That is an incorrect interpretation. The requirement document makes it clear that is 15,000 lbs of give fuel.

    This is also mission tanking vice recovery tanking. There would be no need to completely fill an F-18.

    1. The document doesn't say 15,000 lbs given to each individual aircraft. Besides, that not the way tanking works. In order to actually give 15,000 lbs of fuel to a Hornet, the Hornet would have to have used up all its fuel and be in the process of flaming out and crashing. The 15,000 lbs is simply the total available to be parceled out as required, depending on the mission requirements.

      We know it's mission tanking. That's what the post was about!

      Seriously, what post were you reading cause it clearly wasn't the one that was written!

  18. Read the GAO report on the MQ-25:

    How does CNO and OPNAV come off saying they will have this aboard the carrier 2019-20 depending on who's talking?

    Joke, doublespeak language as usual. Initiation starting of another BS boondoggle program with no efficient product in sight...


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