Home » Aviation » UCLASS Could Be Used as Tanker for Carrier Air Wing


UCLASS Could Be Used as Tanker for Carrier Air Wing

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An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator conducts a touch and go landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77). US Navy Photo

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator conducts a touch and go landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77). US Navy Photo

The U.S. Navy is considering using its forthcoming Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft as an aerial refueling tanker to free up its fleet of Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets for more strike missions, several sources told USNI News.

“It’s definitely of interest,” one industry official said.
“On a typical air operations day, they might have to dedicate up to five Hornets to do tanking.”

Most of those tanker sorties are for “recovery tanking” around the carrier.

According to industry sources and retired service officials, up to 20 percent of a carrier air wing’s Super Hornet sorties are consumed by the tanker mission.

Further, over the past ten years, the Super Hornet fleet has seen higher than expected fleet utilization rates because of the demands of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, industry and Navy sources said.

Particularly, the heavy “five-wet” configuration eats up fatigue life expectancy (FLE) much faster than a lighter configuration.

“We needed to cycle tankers through our airframes in order to balance out the airframe fatigue numbers,” one Navy source said.

Naval Air System Command (NAVAIR) officials said that while the tanker mission does impose stress on the Super Hornet fleet, it is in line with the service’s expectations and were factored into the aircraft’s design.

“Most of these stresses on the tanker mission are on actually when they catapult,” said Scott Dailey, NAVAIR F/A-18E/F and EA-18G air vehicle program manager. “That’s factored into how we manage our fleet in tracking fatigue and flight hours.”

Airframes are cycled to minimize the impact of the tanker mission on the overall Super Hornet fleet. Only a few aircraft at a time are use for tanking, and as those planes are rotated, the fatigue life balances out, Bailey said.

“It does consume flight hours, but no different than long flight hour mission across what is normally scheduled,” he said.

Bailey said that the Super Hornet fleet is “still tracking” to the service life limits that were originally expected from when the jet was still in its engineering and manufacturing development phase.

“We have a service life assessment program that is undergoing now that will enable us to assess the life of the aircraft as it is today,” Bailey said. “Then a follow-on service life extension program which will extend the service life of the aircraft out to the Navy requirement.”

Bailey said that the Navy requirement calls for the Super Hornet fleet to remain in service until the 2030 to 2035 timeframe. The Super Hornet was designed for a 6000-hour lifespan, Bailey said. The service life extension would push that out to 9000 hours. Potentially, the Super Hornet could be extended past even the 9000-hour mark, but additionally work would be required, Bailey said.

But industry sources are not convinced. By the mid-2020s, there probably will not be enough UCLASS air vehicles in the Navy arsenal to perform the aerial refueling mission especially as the Super Hornet airframe start to wear out, the industry sources said.

In that case the Navy will have to come up with an alternative.

“They may be forced to have a dedicated tanker on the deck,” an industry source said.
“This idea that UCLASS is somehow going to save Super Hornets from doing tanking—I’m not seeing how that’s really going to work when you look at the lifespan of the Super Hornets and when UCLASS is going to be in the fleet.”

That’s especially true if a carrier would only carry six UCLASS air vehicles—which would have to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in addition to the tanker mission.

The source suggested the Navy recover some of the retired Lockheed S-3 Vikings from the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

  • Ctrot

    Yes, bring back the S-3! It is utter stupidity to burn up limited front line combat aircraft airframe hours circling the carrier hauling fuel when the same work can be done by a second line aircraft.

    • Marcd30319

      The fact that North Korea are acquiring surplus S-3s means that these aircraft have plenty of life left, and last I heard, Lockheed Martin kept the toolings so new aircraft can be built.

      • Ctrot

        North Korea doesn’t acquire any surplus military aircraft from the US.

        • Marcd30319

          Point taken and response duly amended.

      • estuartj

        North Korea?

        • Marcd30319

          I corrected this six minutes before you posted.

  • IronWorks

    There’s a better option than either S-3s or UCLASS. As the USN introduces E-2D, E-2Cs with considerable remaining airframe life are being retired. Stripped of their radomes and internal electronics, then outfitted with internal tanks and a hose and drogue unit they would deliver more gas than either UCLASS or S-3. Their attractiveness is enhanced by the fact that they are already part of the carrier logistics plan. No need to introduce (or re-introduce) a model/type – and they can be ready soon.

    • Ctrot

      Maybe, maybe not. The E-2 has a cruise speed 150 knts slower than the S-3. That could be problematic for refueling F-18’s.

      • IronWorks

        Actually, the E-2 airspeed is well inside the F-18 refueling envelope. It won’t work for long range mission tanking (can’t keep up with the strike package), but around the carrier, its ideal. Carries a lot more gas than an S-3, so comes home and disrupts launch/recovery ops a lot less.

        • Sandy

          gotta question though, and I’m a frog by trade, but love Naval aviation – even if you use Miss Piggy, the stripped out E-2, won’t they take enormous stress on launch with that much gas? Just wondering…also, could we use the retiring P-3 airframes for refueling as well as they are forward deployed? You would have basing issues and costs with that, but they are still viable. ….interesting debate…thanks…

  • estuartj

    I never understood the decision to stop using S-3’s for the tanker role. Buddy stores are great at keeping the numer of aircraft down, but as we see her the cost to operation and long term airframe is a serious concern. I like the idea of a UCASS system (perhaps not the only one) being utilized for tanker duty, the range and time on station advantage of a UCASS tanker is obvious. Perhaps a dedicated unmanned tanker platform seperate from the UCASS ISR airframe would work, and the space issue could be aleviated by reducing the numbers elsewhere (since they seem to be wasting F-18 hours anyway and are fighting a losing battle to procure enough strike fighters to fill the decks anyway.

  • Taxpayer71

    This article and the ongoing debate on UCLASS requirements leaves the impression that the bottom line is that Navy wants a carrier based unmanned system no matter what the requirement. Navy defined the requirements for such a system to perform ISR, targeting, and strike in defended air space. However, reportedly OSD/JCS don’t support the Navy based on cost and affordability concerns so everyone is conjuring up requirements (ISR, tanking, etc) that could conceivably be used to justify some sort of a UCLASS new start acquisition program.

    The Navy’s original requirement makes great sense especially with the emphasis on access to and operations in defended airspace. A new start UCLASS program to meet ISR and tanker “requirements” in benign airspace would be a waste of money and result in fielding of an airborne system that could not be modified over time to address the real requirement — operations in defended airspace.

    If the Navy wants to gain experience with carrier based unmanned operations why no extend/modify the current demonstration program to perform tanking both around the ship and in support of air group operations enroute to or returning from strike operations.

    • estuartj

      I’m not so sure the resistance to an advanced ISR UCASS is coming from the Navy or from OSD. If the USN could drop the F-35C in favor of a UCASS platform to fulfill the same role that could destory the JSF program. The Navy is obviously very keen on keeping the F-18 program alive as an alternative, and IMO the evolving requirements for the UCASS reflect more a desire to go forward with SOME unmanned system, even if OSD won’t let them push a platform that could be the final dagger to the F-35.

      • estuartj

        There is also a parallel here with the fielding of laser weapons this year, both Direct Energy Weapons and Unmanned CVW components will require a significant efforts to integrate, and the USN wants to start them ASAP, even if the ultimate desired systems (Free Electron Laser, Electromagnetic Railgun and Deep Strke Unmanned Stealth Fighter) aren’t ready yet.

  • Taxpayer71

    Air Sea Battle Capabilities

    The air sea battle concept suggests a level of USAF/Navy/USMC cooperation in the conduct of operations with their respective operational capabilities. To what extent does the concept suggest some coordination among the services in the planning for and acquisition of future capabilities that would result in greater air-sea battle success at lower cost.

    Given current and projected DoD budget constraints perhaps it is time to consider elimination of some USAF-Navy redundancies; for example, USAF and Navy unmanned ISR, Targeting and Strike UAV systems capable of operating and surviving in defended airspace? The December 9, 2013 article in Aviation Week on the RQ-180 suggests the USAF has or will shortly have such a capability in its inventory. While a carrier based system would be nice to have, the offsets to free up $3.7 billion plus in Navy funding for even a benign airspace UCLASS dramatically reduce the Navy’s capabilities to support the air sea battle concept. Note the unfunded requirements for the refueling of the USS George Washington, and the “lay up” of half of the Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers.

  • TomcatJoe

    A UAV as a recovery tanker (at this point in time) is IN-SANE. No way it can do a visual hawk, and L-16 is not reliable enough. Emergency airplanes need gas too, and sometimes things are not quite working right, like GPS, crypto keys, etc. That being said, the one thing in this article that is right is that swapping out 6 S-3 sorties for 17-20 FA-18E/F sorties was a huge mistake. Strike fighters make terrible tankers because the specific fuel consumption is too high. A recovery tanker that tanks two guys suddenly becomes part of the problem. There is a narrow window of opportunity to bring the S-3 back, but that would require swallowing a lot of pride. I think it would be the right thing to do but I don’t see it happening.

  • Super Rhinoceront

    Bid deal, just build more Super Hornets and some Uclass.