Tanker duty for US Navy drone

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An X-47B receiving fuel from a 707 tanker while operating in the Atlantic Test Ranges in 2015. Image: © US Navy

The US Navy will use its first drone as an aerial refueling tanker.

‘The primary mission of the MQ-25 will be a range extension aerial refueling platform (tanker),’ chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson said in a memo sent last week to navy deputies and commanders.

The decision changes the navy’s unmanned aircraft emphasis away from air combat. Since 2011 the navy has been testing two X-47B unmanned air combat vehicles, which have demonstrated autonomous carrier launches and recoveries.

A report written last year by retired US naval aviator Henry Hendrix puts the navy’s decision in context. Hendrix notes the combat range of US carrier-based strike aircraft is less now than during the Vietnam War. The combat range has fallen from up to 1800 nm to 496 nm, due to an emphasis on aircraft fleet standardisation and high sortie rates, and the cancellation of replacement aircraft projects. He also notes the development by regional powers of anti-ship ballistic missiles with a range of 1000 nm.

Admiral Richardson told Navy Times, ‘As we get this on deck, we’re going to learn a tremendous amount on how to integrate an unmanned aircraft into an air wing: how to bring it on, take it off, maintain it at sea, and all those unique things that go along with that aircraft. All of that may allow us, as technology moves forward, to evolve.’

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