Tag: Drones

Secretive SR-72 Spy Plane And RQ-180 Spy Drone Teased In Recent U.S. Air Force Video

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What appears to be the SR-72 is visible in this digitally altered screenshot from the USAF video.

Several interesting projects are featured in a short promotional video, including the secretive SR-72 and the .

A video, published on Youtube on Nov. 8, 2021, by the U.S. Air Force Profession of Arms Center of Excellence (PACE) under the title “Heritage Today – ISR and Innovation” provides a new look at some of the most interesting and secretive U.S. ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) projects.

The less than 3 minutes clip is an overview of the evolution of the ISR mission since the beginning. At the 2:25 mark, after showing a flying RQ-4 Global Hawk, the video focuses on a stealthy flying-wing drone whose planform appears to be similar to the artworks published on the front cover of Aviation Week & Space Technology when the project was unveiled in 2013. The planform image is introduced by the following commentary: “The days of balloons and biplanes have been replaced by white bats,” and considered that the is nicknamed the “Great White Bat” (or sometimes “Shikaka”, a fictional sacred white bat from the 1995 movie Ace Ventura 2), the appearance of the cranked kite design clearly alludes to the new clandestine spy drone.

Still, it’s worth noticing that the shape of the drone featured in the latest USAF video does not fit the one of the unmanned aircraft, believed to be indeed a real RQ-180, spotted over California, last year, and the Philippines earlier this year. In other words, we are probably not shown the actual RQ-180 but something loosely similar to it, in preparation of a somehow official unveiling.

- Secretive SR-72 Spy Plane And RQ-180 Spy Drone Teased In Recent U.S. Air Force VideoThe cranked-kite planform that alludes to the RQ-180 White Bat in a screenshot from the USAF video

However, the one of the “”White Bat” is not the only interesting “cameo” or easter egg you can find in the video.

The really interesting one, comes later, at the 2:34 mark, when the video cuts to the dark image of a sleek and stealthy aircraft in a hangar that seems to match the shape of the SR-71 successor, also unofficially dubbed the “Son of Blackbird“, the Lockheed SR-72.

The SR-72 is an unmanned hypersonic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and strike platform designed for Mach 6. Very little is known about this aircraft besides some alleged sightings, rumoured every now and then, and the presumed date for a first flight possibly in 2025.

Again, the one in the USAF clip is probably just a computer-generated image, with many different details and possibly a significantly different shape than the real thing; still it’s worth of remark since it is one of the very few (somewhat official) allusions to the new aircraft that the service has done since the program was revealed. For the records, the SR-72 was featured in a poster issued by the Air Force in 2017 for the 70th anniversary of the service, that you can find here: the shape appears to be pretty much the same as the mysterious aircraft in the latest video.

Interestingly, the video also shows the outline of the secretive X-37B spaceplane in a display of what seems to be a command center.

- Secretive SR-72 Spy Plane And RQ-180 Spy Drone Teased In Recent U.S. Air Force VideoThe silhouette of the X-37B can be seen in a screen of a sort of command and control center for the spaceplane.

We have wrote a lot about the X-37B in the past here at The Aviationist. Here below you can find an excerpt with some of the key facts and some theories about the missions it carries out:

The Air Force’s X-37B began as a test project with NASA in 1999 but was acquired by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2004. Most sources list two operational X-37B spacecraft and a single X-37A. The fact that only three exist, their missions and roles are classified and they operate in space makes them incredibly difficult to get photos of, especially when performing an active mission as in Vandebergh’s photos.

Little is known about the current role of the two X-37Bs and the single X-37A. Most likely the X-37Bs are in some form of “operational test” use with the USAF while the X-37A reportedly remains a combined Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA spacecraft with an equally secretive role.

While most information in the public domain lists both the X-37B and X-37A as “test” vehicles, the X-37B has performed unusually long duration space flights for testing.

Three theories [about the type of missions the X-37B has carried out thus far] have prevailed:

The first theory is that the X-37B is a space-based weapons platform. The spacecraft is pre-deployed into orbit armed with some type of weaponized re-entry vehicle that could be released over or near a specific target. It may also be a weapons delivery vehicle deployed in defense of space-based commercial assets such as the GPS satellite constellation. This theory is debunked by most analysts.

Secondly, and most plausibly, the spacecraft may be a platform for gathering intelligence. This could include signals intelligence such as activities of communications and surveillance satellites, both civilian and military. With approximately 2,271 satellites in orbit around the earth at various altitudes performing a wide variety of functions this theory tends to be the most realistic. It may also be ground mapping radar and other surveillance mediums. Since the large internal payload bay of the X-37B, about the size of the interior of a small general aviation aircraft such as a Cessna Caravan, is interchangeable the spacecraft could be “mission adaptive”, meaning it could be reconfigured for various types of surveillance. That this last mission was so long in duration suggests the X-37B may have had a means of transmitting intelligence from space back down to earth, somehow beyond the capabilities of existing space based surveillance platforms like satellites.

Lastly, and most unlikely, the X-37B remains a research project. It could potentially be a test bed for deploying satellites and servicing them robotically in space, releasing new orbital packages into space or any number of other roles not yet performed operationally. Given the duration and investment into the program along with the operational security surrounding it this theory seems least likely. A major part of X-37B operations are administered by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a shadowy U.S. government agency located in Arlington, Virginia.

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David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

Boeing Expands The Test Program Of The Loyal Wingman Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for Australia

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The Airpower Teaming System unmanned aircraft photographed during its second flight. (Photo: Australian MoD via Boeing)

A second aircraft joined the flight test campaign, while the first one performed its second flight.

Boeing Australia recently announced that it has expanded the flight-test program of the Airpower Teaming System, also known as Loyal Wingman, that it is being developed together with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Two unmanned aircraft successfully completed separate test flights at the Woomera Range Complex, including the second flight of the first ATS aircraft and the maiden flight of the second aircraft built.

The flight tests of aircraft one included for the first time the landing gear cycling operation, following the first flight with the landing gear fixed in the extended position as common for the maiden flight of new aircraft types. RUAG Australia and BAE Systems Australia supported the test, with the former being the supplier of the landing gear systems and the latter being in charge of the design, supply and support of the flight control and navigation systems tested as part of the flights. The aircraft demonstrated a range of key characteristics that will help the further expansion of the flight envelope.

The second Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft also completed its maiden flight. No further details were provided by the company, other than saying that the flight was successful. “It is so exciting seeing two aircraft in the air as the Loyal Wingman continues to excel in the flight-test program,” said Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, RAAF Head of Air Force Capability. “This opens up significant capability agility for Air Force, particularly with features such as the reconfigurable nose. We’re heavily engaged in the payload development and the element of surprise that it gives us in the battlespace. You never really know what’s in the nose.”

As mentioned in our past articles about the Boeing ATS here at The Aviationist, one of the key features of the unmanned aircraft is an 8.5 ft (2.6 m) long modular nose cone with 9000 cubic inches internal volume to house different payloads. The entire nose can be swapped quickly according to the mission’s needs and also to the customer’s needs. Boeing states on its website that the ATS will integrate sensor packages onboard to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, tactical early warning missions and more.

In the press release about the Loyal Wingman’s latest milestones, Boeing mentioned that the development teams gathered aircraft performance data throughout the flight-test missions that will be used to inform and refine the digital twin of the Airpower Teaming System, with the goal of accelerating the aircraft’s development where possible. As the digital twin models the system’s structure, systems and the entire lifecycle, from design and development to production and sustainment, and contributes to speed of development and first-time quality.

- Boeing Expands The Test Program Of The Loyal Wingman Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for AustraliaThe first two Airpower Teaming System unmanned aircraft photographed at RAAF Woomera Airfield. (Photo: Boeing)

“We’re in a steady rhythm of flight testing on the way to mission and operational testing, enabling Boeing Australia, RAAF and our Australian industry team of more than 35 companies to progressively advance the flight characteristics and capabilities of the uncrewed teaming system,” said Glen Ferguson, director of Boeing Airpower Teaming System – Australia and International. “I’d like to extend my thanks to our capability partner BAE Systems Australia, and to RUAG Australia for their specific roles in this latest test block.”

The first batch of Loyal Wingman aircraft are serving as the foundation for the Boeing Airpower Teaming System. While initially only three aircraft were being built, after the first flight in February, the RAAF signed a new contract for three additional aircraft, bringing the total to six aircraft. The contract will support the maturation of the aircraft design, evolution of current and future payloads, and create the sustainment system for the aircraft in operations. Boeing Australia confirmed that the fifth ATS aircraft is already in production.

In September, Boeing announced a new manufacturing facility for the Loyal Wingman at Wellcamp Airport in Toowoomba, Queensland. The facility will be in charge of the manufacture of part of the aircraft as well as completing the final assembly. The initial development is set to take place within a year from the announcement, but it is not yet known when the completed facility will be operational. Meanwhile, the production activities will continue at the company’s facility in Melbourne.

While the Loyal Wingman is designed primarily for the RAAF, the final version of the ATS will be destined to the global defense market and custom tailored to the client’s own defense and industrial objectives. Confirming the intention to pitch the system to other customers, Boeing will showcase the Loyal Wingman at the 2021 Dubai Airshow this month. Boeing’s exhibit in Dubai will highlight other recent defense products including the F-15EX Eagle II fighter jet and T-7A Red Hawk.

Boeing is also set to build an unspecified number of ATS aircraft for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) as part of a contract to build prototype airframes for the Skyborg program. Boeing is one of the companies, together with General Atomics and Kratos, that has been selected for the prototyping phase, but a timeline for the deliver of the prototypes has not been disclosed.

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Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

DARPA’s X-61A Gremlin Air Vehicle (GAV) Recovered Inflight For The First Time

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The X-61A Gremlin Air Vehicle as it gets reeled in by the mechanical arm installed inside the C-130. (Photo: DARPA)

The successful test follows last year’s failed attempt when the drones moved within inches from recovery, however one X-61 was also lost due to an unexpected power system issue.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced the first successful airborne recovery of an X-61A Gremlin Air Vehicle (GAV) during the latest round of flight testing in October. The test follows the first failed attempts from last year, when Dynetics and DARPA made nine attempts with the Gremlin coming within a few inches from the docking “bullet” extended from a C-130 Hercules. In that occasion, the testing team encountered a more dynamic relative movement than expected, requiring software changes to the autopilot to improve its responsiveness.

“This recovery was the culmination of years of hard work and demonstrates the feasibility of safe, reliable airborne recovery,” said Lt. Col. Paul Calhoun, program manager for Gremlins in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “Such a capability will likely prove to be critical for future distributed air operations.” Tim Keeter, Gremlins program manager for Dynetics, disclosed during an interview with Breaking Defense’s Valerie Insinna that the successful recovery was performed on Oct. 29, 2021, as predicted by the team.

The test flight was also visible on ADS-B tracking websites with the C-130A, a 1955 aircraft which previously served in the U.S. Air Force and is now operated by the specialized aerial services provider International Air Response, tracking while orbiting over the Dugway Proving Ground (East), Utah. Multiple tracks were flown at speeds between 160 kts and 200 kts, with altitudes varying from 9,500 ft to 14,500 ft and legs about 25 NM long.

The inflight recovery is performed by a roll-on/roll-off system, which includes the physical structure, the docking structure, the towed, attitude-controlled “bullet” and the in-flight stowage system, installed inside the C-130 cargo bay. The recovery itself happens in two phases, with the Gremlin first connecting to the docking system, which stabilizes it against harsh weather and the turbulence generated by the “mothership” C-130, before being grabbed by the mechanical arm that recovers it inside the aircraft.

Marvin Hill, Dynetics X-61A recovery system chief engineer, described last year the recovery process saying it is “like fishing in the sky, except the fish weighs 1,200 pounds.” Another way to describe it would be using the similarity with the probe-and-drogue air-to-air refueling, since the X-61 extends a probe that connects to the stabilized “bullet” which is similar in many ways to the basket attached at the end of the fuel hose.

- DARPA’s X-61A Gremlin Air Vehicle (GAV) Recovered Inflight For The First TimeThe X-61 drone shortly before capturing the docking bullet (Photo: DARPA). In the box: the flight track recorded via ADS-B (Image: adsbexchange).

The X-61 that was aerially recovered during the October 29 test was then refurbished and flown again within 24 working-hours, on Oct. 31, 2021. This time, however, the DARPA/Dynetics team did not succeed in the airborne recovery and the drone safely landed on the ground with its internal parachutes. “Airborne recovery is complex,” said Calhoun. “We will take some time to enjoy the success of this deployment, then get back to work further analyzing the data and determining next steps for the Gremlins technology.”

The 24 hours goal is one of the requirements set by DARPA, as the Gremlins program envisions the launch of groups of UASs from existing large aircraft, such as bombers or transport aircraft, while they are outside the range of adversary defenses, and their airborne recovery by a C-130 so they could be reused within 24 hours. The GAVs can be equipped with a variety of sensors and other mission-specific payloads for coordinated, distributed capabilities, with an expected lifetime of about 20 uses that could provide significant cost advantages over expendable systems and an improved operational flexibility.

The important milestone of the first airborne recovery is however accompanied by some bad news, as one of the two X-61 drones employed during this round of testing was destroyed during the first flight. According to ADS-B data, this test flight was performed on October 15 and the mishap seemingly happened during the first phases of the flight, as the C-130 was recorded performing just a couple of orbits in the reserved airspace before the test was aborted.

During his interview with Breaking Defense, Keeter described the unexpected issue that resulted in the loss of the drone as a “power system problem that caused us to have to terminate flight”, but there wasn’t enough time for the UAS to release its parachutes. “At no time was that incident of safety issue or concern. We were able to quickly diagnose the situation, come up with a corrective action, implement that fix and get permission to return to flight,” said Keeter.

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Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

MQ-25 Stingray Tests Move Forward With First F-35C Lightning II Air-To-Air Refueling

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An MQ-25 test asset, known as T1, conducts its first aerial refueling test flight with an F-35C Lightning II Sept. 13 near MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois.  (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

Following the F/A-18F Super Hornet and the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, the unmanned MQ-25 tanker was now tested in conjunction with the F-35, moving at a fast pace towards the delivery of a fully mission-capable drone.

The U.S. Navy announced a few days ago the latest milestone of the MQ-25 Stingray unmanned tanker program, with the drone refueling for the first time the Navy’s newest fighter aircraft, the F-35C Lightning II. The successful test was conducted on September 13, 2021 near MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah (Illinois) and involved the Boeing-owned MQ-25 test asset, known as T1, an F-35C from Air Test Wing and Evaluation Squadron Two Three (VX-23) and an EA-18G Growler of the same unit as safety chase.

“Every T1 flight with another Type/Model/Series aircraft gets us one step closer to rapidly delivering a fully mission-capable MQ-25 to the fleet,” said Capt. Chad Reed, the Navy’s PMA-268 program manager. “Stingray’s unmatched refueling capability is going to increase the Navy’s power projection and provide operational flexibility to the carrier strike group commanders.”

This event marked the third refueling flight for the T1 test aircraft, following the first refueling flights with an F/A-18F Super Hornet in June and with an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye in August. Each aircraft type is aerodynamically unique so they will respond differently to the wake of a tanker and these flight tests are needed to assess how they will interact with each other and the refueling system. As we already reported, the MQ-25 employs the Cobham Aerial Refueling Store (ARS), the same used by F/A-18s, to perform the refueling operation.

During the three-hour flight, as disclosed by the Navy, the F-35C approached T1, performed formation evaluations, wake surveys, drogue tracking and plugged with the MQ-25 test asset at 225 knots calibrated airspeed (KCAS) and altitude of 10,000 feet. From the ground control station, an air vehicle operator then initiated the fuel transfer from T1’s aerial refueling store to the F-35C. The data collected will now be analyzed to determine if any adjustments to guidance and control are required.

- MQ-25 Stingray Tests Move Forward With First F-35C Lightning II Air-To-Air RefuelingThe F-35C Lightning II is refueled by the MQ-25 test asset as an F/A-18 chase aircraft hovers nearby during a test flight Sept. 13 near MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

The F-35C test will be the last land-based refueling test for now, as the Navy’s press release mentions that T1 will now enter into a modification period to integrate the deck handling system in preparation for a shipboard demonstration this winter. The MQ-25 T1 test asset has so far conducted 36 flights for a total of more than 120 flight hours, providing the program with valuable information on aerodynamics, propulsion, guidance and control in advance of the MQ-25 engineering and manufacturing development aircraft deliveries.

As we already reported, the MQ-25 T1 is the predecessor to the four engineering development model (EDM) MQ-25 aircraft being produced, the first of which is expected to be delivered later this year. The U.S. Navy is planning to procure more than 70 aircraft, which will replace the F/A-18E Super Hornets in the aerial refueling role they currently have as part of the Carrier Air Wing, becoming also the first operational carrier-based UAV. This way, the Carrier Air Wing will have more Super Hornets available for operational mission, without the need to reserve some of them for the air-to-air refueling mission.

Later this year, the U.S. Navy will stand up Unmanned Carrier-Launched Multi Role Squadron (VUQ) 10, the fleet replacement squadron; then, two MQ-25A squadrons, VUQ-11 and 12, will be established. These squadrons are set to deploy aboard U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers. The MQ-25 will be the first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft and will provide critical aerial refueling and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to support the Air Wing of the Future – a mix of fourth and fifth-generation aircraft, manned and unmanned platforms, and netted sensors and weapons.

Along with organic tanking, the Navy mentions that the MQ-25 will pave the way for manned and unmanned teaming (MUM-T) of carrier-based aircraft that will extend the strike range and enhance maneuverability, possibly opening to new concepts in the future for carrier-based Loyal Wingman-type unmanned aircraft.

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Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

The Royal Navy Is Operating Crewed And Uncrewed Aircraft From The HMS Prince Of Wales Aircraft Carrier

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A Banshee Jet 80+ target drone in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm livery on the HMS Prince of Wales. (Photo: Royal Navy)

The aircraft carrier is testing the Banshee target drone as a training, testing and evaluation method for simulating airborne targets at sea ahead of the participation to Exercise Joint Warrior.

The HMS Prince of Wales is at sea again on the way to the Scottish coast, where she will take part to Exercise Joint Warrior, scheduled from Sept. 27 to Oct. 4, 2021. The Royal Navy is moving at a fast pace to get the second aircraft carrier of the Queen Elizabeth class fully operational and ready for deployment, after the F-35B Lightning II first landed on the ship in June 2021.

Earlier this summer, the HMS Prince of Wales was involved in the Sea Acceptance Trials, testing the ship’s capability to receive and launch aircraft and sustain continuous air operations. In addition to the Royal Navy Merlin and Wildcat helicopters and the Royal Air Force F-35B, the carrier also launched and recovered Chinook and Apache helicopters, before completing Basic Sea Training and sailing for a quick visit to Gibraltar.

More recently, at the beginning of September, the ship’s official Twitter account disclosed the beginning of a test campaign with the QinetiQ Banshee target drone, which is being evaluated for a training, testing and evaluation method for simulating airborne targets at sea. The post shows a twin-engine drone, mentioning that it can reach speeds up to 200 metres/second (about 388 knots) and thus allowing us to identify it as the Banshee Jet 80+. The Banshee is fitted with two gas turbine engines that provide 45 kg of thrust each, for a total of 90 kg of static thrust. Fitted with an auxiliary fuel tank, the drone can fly for more than 45 minutes with a range of more than 100 km.

The Banshee can be fitted with an IR Hot Nose to provide, together with the engines’ own IR signature, an all-aspect Infra-Red source to act as a realistic target for IR-guided weapons. Another possible payload is the Rattler Ground Air-Launched Supersonic Target, designed to realistically replicate air-launched Anti-Radiation Missiles (ARMs) and Supersonic High-Diver threats and capable of speeds of between Mach 1.8 to Mach 2.5. Neither of those payloads was tested aboard the HMS Prince of Wales, according to the photos published by the Royal Navy. We did however notice that the Banshee, after the first days onboard with the classic orange livery usually seen on target drones, is now wearing a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm grey livery.

- The Royal Navy Is Operating Crewed And Uncrewed Aircraft From The HMS Prince Of Wales Aircraft CarrierAn F-35B Lightning II prepares to launch from the HMS Prince of Wales. (Photo: Royal Navy)

It is not known at this time if the tests with the Banshee are in some way related to Project Vixen, the project that aims to create an autonomous carrier-launched wingman. This program presents many similarities with the Royal Air Force Project Mosquito, part of the bigger Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) concept that will offer increased protection, survivability and information for the manned aircraft. One of the focus points of the program is to create a drone costing approximately £ 10M or a tenth of the cost of an F-35B.

According to previous official statements, it is likely that Vixen will be a derivative of Mosquito which has been adapted for carrier operations: “The RAF envisions an aircraft derived from LANCA’s Mosquito phase being used on the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers alongside F-35B Lightnings”, said last year Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff of the Royal Air Force.

Some clues in a Request For Information (RFI) of the British government for aircraft launch and recovery equipment suggest that Vixen might be catapult-launched and recovered via arrestor cables, in what is commonly known as “cat and trap” system. The document mentions an electromagnetic catapult able to launch aircraft up to a maximum weight of 55,000 pounds (slightly less than the 60,000 pounds Maximum Take-Off Weight of the F-35B) and arrestor solutions for the recovery of aircraft between a maximum of 47,000 pounds and a minimum of 11,000 pounds.

Another interesting detail mentioned in the RFI is that the equipment could be used for both crewed and un-crewed air vehicles and should be ready for installation on the ship within three to five years. The latter detail would also fit the expected timeline for LANCA, which could be first deployed alongside the Typhoon and the F-35 by the end of the decade, before the entry into service of the new Tempest in 2035. As we already reported, the LANCA project was started to understand innovative combat air technologies and concepts under the Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative (FCAS TI), the same programme which generated the Tempest 6th generation aircraft.

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Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

How Have the 9/11 Terror Attacks Shaped U.S. Military Doctrine Over Two Decades?

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An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Dec. 17, 2019. The Remotely Piloted Aircraft enterprise is made of Airmen across all career fields to deliver justice to our Nation’s enemies 24/7/365. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Haley Stevens)

The 9/11 Terror Attacks Changed the Way the U.S. Wages War. But How?

Two decades have passed since the 9/11 terror attacks and the beginning, and now claimed end, of the Global War on Terror. With an apparent conclusion to overt U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, it’s appropriate to reflect on how the U.S. military has evolved since late 2001 and 9/11, and how it may continue to evolve in the future.

In the decades prior to both the Vietnam conflict and the Global War on Terror, the U.S. military was optimized largely as a “Leviathan Force”. This term was popularized by global military geostrategist and academic Thomas P.M. Barnett.

From 2001 to 2004, Barnett challenged conventional military doctrine with the concept that wars would continue to become increasingly “asymmetric”. One side would be a large nation-state with a uniformed military service, but the opposition would not be a country or nation-state at all. It may be an ideology that is not aligned with or constrained by any specific geography. There would not be a uniformed military adversary with a set conflict doctrine or static bases. Instead, their “base” would be their ideology, and their strategy and tactics would remain highly adaptable. In fact, an English translation of Al Qaeda is, “The Base”, defining the center of military balance in terms of ideology, not geography.

- How Have the 9/11 Terror Attacks Shaped U.S. Military Doctrine Over Two Decades?U.S. military doctrine has traditionally favored a large, conventional “leviathan force” before the Global War on Terror. (All photos TheAviationist/Tom Demerly, unless otherwise stated)

Barnett authored a PowerPoint presentation titled, “The Pentagon’s New Map”. This went on to become a book by the same name. In his book, Barnett defines the geopolitical world in terms of two extremes, a “Functioning Core” and a “Non-Integrated Gap”. He professes that the traditional “big army” leviathan force militaries of the Cold War era are ill-conceived to moderate conflict between the Functioning Core and the Non-Integrated Gap. He goes on to suggest that the military ought to evolve a new “Sys Admin” force that facilitates the integration, as opposed to military defeat, of the Non-Integrated Gap more readily into the Functioning Core. In short, Barnett espouses a kind of, “If you can’t beat ‘em, have them join you” strategy to dealing with adversarial/doctrinal opponents like Al Qaeda, ISIL and others.

Barnett pointed out that large militaries were configured and optimized to fight other large armies. The Cold War threat to NATO by the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union described just such a threat.

Tom Clancy’s fictional masterwork, “Red Storm Rising” illustrated in literary terms what this conflict may look like. But Clancy, in his prescient imagination, also realized that the most plausible emerging threat may not be the armored divisions of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union ready to pour through the Fulda Gap and conquer Europe by force of arms. Clancy penned a prescient verse in his novel, “The Sum of All Fears”, that features a plot where an extremist group manages to acquire one nuclear warhead. Clancy wrote an exchange between two characters. The fictional U.S. President Fowler, who asks character Bill Cabot, the fictional Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, “Who else has 27,000 nukes for us to worry about?” Cabot responds, “It’s the guy with one I’m worried about.”

And while it wasn’t a single nuclear weapon gone rogue that the U.S. faced on 9/11, it was a small group of determined extremists armed with little more than box cutters and plane tickets who brought a nation to its knees for at least a short time and changed their way of life for at least two decades.

As a result of this conflict asymmetry, the U.S. and coalition militaries have had to adapt significantly. Different than waging wholesale war on a nation-state, the asymmetrical war lexicon now includes terms like “High Value Target” or “HVT”, “Nation Building” and “Ginsu Bomb” that describes the precision guided, non-explosive AGM-119R9X.

Large occupation forces with tank divisions and infantry battalions have given way to small, special operation forces like Navy SEALS, Army Special Forces and Rangers. Flights of massive heavy bombers carpet-bombing large areas as seen in the Vietnam-era “Arc Light” and “Rolling Thunder” B-52 strikes have shifted to the use of precision-guided weapons sometimes deployed from remotely piloted aircraft, “RPAs” or “drones”. Airstrikes can be conducted without detection on a target-specific scale by using low-observable “stealth” strike assets like the B-2 Spirit, F-22 Raptor and the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, all of which have been operationally deployed in the stealth/precision strike role in the Global War on Terror.

- How Have the 9/11 Terror Attacks Shaped U.S. Military Doctrine Over Two Decades?Asymmetrical warfare has been defined by a new lexicon of equipment and tactics, such as reliance on the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) armed with small, precision guided weapons.

So, warfare has changed significantly in the 20 years since the 9/11 terror attacks, and it continues to evolve. But one thing that remains the same is that wars fought against nation-states for territory and resources- land and treasure, are historically easier to moderate than chasing a terrorist doctrine or extremist mindset into the shadows and either changing its thinking, or annihilating it altogether.

- How Have the 9/11 Terror Attacks Shaped U.S. Military Doctrine Over Two Decades?Air assets in the Global War on Terror evolved rapidly with a new emphasis on supporting special operations forces and precision air strikes. This USAF HH-60 “Jolly Green II” special operations helicopter is one example.

837c2d9d6db24da308bea1fe1cf06f9a?s=125&d=mm&r=g - How Have the 9/11 Terror Attacks Shaped U.S. Military Doctrine Over Two Decades?
Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on TheAviationist.com, TACAIRNET.com, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.

Mysterious Aircraft Spotted Over Philippines Strikingly Similar To Mystery UAS Photographed Over California Last Year

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Mysterious Aircraft Spotted Over Philippines Strikingly Similar To Mystery UAS Photographed Over California Last Year
The main photograph is a crop of Michael Fugit’s shot. On the right box, the mysterious UAS photographed over California in 2020. (Image credit: TheAviationist using Michael Fugit and Rob Kolinsky photos).

Let’s talk about the mysterious flying wing aircraft that flew over the Philippines a few days ago.

On Sept. 2, 2021, at 06.15AM LT, Michael Fugnit took a photo of a rather mysterious aircraft at high altitude flying with a southwestern heading over the Philippines.

“I didn’t hear any sounds from the aircraft,” told us Michael in a message. “I was waiting for the sunrise since it is my daily routine to capture sunrise and sunsets when I took the photo from the top hill of Brgy. San Roque Municipality of Sta. Magdalena Province of Sorsogon”.

Analysis on the only photograph Michael took of the aircraft suggest that the image is genuine and not doctored.

- Mysterious Aircraft Spotted Over Philippines Strikingly Similar To Mystery UAS Photographed Over California Last YearThe original image taken by Michael Fugit.

The shot features what seems to be a large-span flying wing with straight trailing edge and trails two contrails, suggesting closely paired twin turbofan engines: in other words, the one photographed over the Philippines a few days ago appears to be strikingly similar to the mysterious UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) spotted flying over Palmdale, California, in 2020, a UAS thought to be a  either the highly classified Northrop Grumman RQ-180 drone, or a Lockheed Martin P-175 Polecat derivative.

This is what we wrote in November 2020, when the image of the UAS flying over California first appeared online:

The photo, which was claimed to be taken, “…in California just north of Edwards [AFB]”, shows an aircraft trailing two prominent contrails, suggesting the altitude of the aircraft at the time the photo was taken was in excess of approximately 25,000 ft. Contrails require moist, cold air to freeze the water vapor expelled during normal jet engine combustion. Considering the altitude of the aircraft at the time the photo was taken, the size of the aircraft in the photo may be significant. Published estimates of the wingspan of the RQ-180 drone claim it may be as large as 130 ft. Estimates of the wingspan of the Polecat suggest it is about 90 ft.

The U.S. Air Force does not acknowledge the existence of the RQ-180 drone, but a number of factors seem to support theories of its existence and even operational deployment. One theory that supports the operational deployment of the RQ-180 is the reduction in the number of RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drones. It’s possible a newer, more capable RQ-180 may have taken over missions previously assigned to RQ-4s.

Forbes magazine reporter David Axe is another keen-eyed journalist who recognized the significance of the new Kolinsky photo. Late Sunday night Axe wrote, “The Air Force reportedly tested the roughly 170-feet-wingspan RQ-180 at Groom Lake, part of the Area 51 complex in Nevada. By early 2020 the RQ-180 apparently was so well-established in Air Force service that the flying branch was comfortable cutting its fleet of non-stealthy RQ-4 Global Hawk drones.”

[…]

Observers of the photo on internet forums have made some interesting insights about the Kolinsky photo. Some suggest the planform of the aircraft in Kolinsky’s image is nearly identical to the Polecat. A revived P-175 (the original one crashed in 2007) or a testbed based on it? Maybe.

Provided they are the same type, the main difference between the sighting last year and the one of a few days ago is that the latter proves the mysterious (most probably unmanned) aircraft would be already conducting operational missions around the world. In fact, based on the location where the aircraft was spotted, it seems reasonable to believe it was returning from a mission in the South China Sea where there might have been interesting Chinese activity to surveil. Dispatching a HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) low-observable drone from either the U.S. or a forward operating location (like Andersen Air Force Base, in Guam, that already hosts the RQ-4s) to cover some specific time-sensitive target, would totally make sense. These missions could require the aircraft to cross some unpopulated areas of the Philippines during daylight conditions (as happened on Sept. 2), when chances to be spotted from the ground are scarce.

Obioviously, there are many other intriguing theories, including the one that the aircraft overflying the Philippines could be a Chinese H-20 stealth bomber, but we have no details suggesting the Chinese have reached a phase of the development of their aircraft that would allow them to fly it in daylight inside enemy airspace.

Dealing with the RQ-180, the existence of a secret unmanned aerial system (UAS), designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, and scheduled to be operational with the U.S. Air Force by 2015 was first revealed by Aviation Week & Space Technology, Senior Pentagon Editor Amy Butler and Senior International Defense Editor Bill Sweetman in December 2013.

Developed by Northrop Grumman since 2008-2009, the stealthy RQ-180 is designed to operate in “contested” or “denied” airspace, as opposed to the non-stealthy RQ-4 Global Hawk that are intended for “permissive” scenarios.

In their analysis back then, Sweetman and Butler said: “It is similar in size and endurance to the Global Hawk, which weighs 32,250 lb. and can stay on station for 24 hr. 1,200 nm from its base. The much smaller RQ-170 is limited to 5-6 hr. of operation. […] The aircraft uses a version of Northrop’s stealthy “cranked-kite” design, as does the X-47B, with a highly swept centerbody and long, slender outer wings. Northrop Grumman engineers publicly claimed (before the launch of the classified program) that the cranked-kite is scalable and adaptable, in contrast to the B-2’s shape, which has an unbroken leading edge. The RQ-180’s centerbody length and volume can be greater relative to the vehicle’s size.”

The RQ-180 is nicknamed the “Great White Bat” or sometimes “Shikaka”, a fictional sacred white bat from the 1995 movie Ace Venture 2, AW&ST reported.

A big thank you to Michael Fugit for allowing us to use his photograph and to our reader Marls for the heads up!

f5260c1a4f5417527329915544c2932f?s=125&d=mm&r=g - Mysterious Aircraft Spotted Over Philippines Strikingly Similar To Mystery UAS Photographed Over California Last Year
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.

General Atomics Provides Detailed Look At Sparrowhawk Air-Launched And Air-Retrievable Small UAS

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - General Atomics Provides Detailed Look At Sparrowhawk Air-Launched And Air-Retrievable Small UAS
Artist rendering of GA-ASI’s new Sparrowhawk Small UAS (SUAS), launched from an MQ-9B SkyGuardian in the distance. In the box: a robotic test of the integrated in-flight recovery system. (Photo: GA-ASI)

The company showcased the technology that will allow the in-flight recovery of the Sparrowhawk SUAS, as well as a first look at the new Longshot drone being developed for DARPA.

Last year, General Atomics (GA-ASI) unveiled its Sparrowhawk air-launched and air-retrievable Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS). Recently, the company released more details about the system, including the mechanism that will allow the inflight recovery by its “mothership”. The occasion was provided by the publication of an overview of the advent of SUAS and their evolution, as envisioned by GA-ASI.

Sparrowhawk is described by GA-ASI as a game-changing SUAS which an aircraft such as the MQ-9 Reaper can carry under its wings, as it might a traditional payload like a sensor pod or a fuel tank (it weighs just 500 lb), and which can be launched and then recovered in mid-flight when the “mothership” reaches an area of interest on a mission, something that few remotely operated aircraft have ever done until now.

Sparrowhawk is considered difficult to spot by adversaries as it is programmed to fly low and relatively fast, being able to fly between 80 to 150 KIAS at altitudes up to 25,000 ft. This way the small drone can provide distributed and disaggregated sensors across the battle space, below the weather sensor coverage, attritable sensor capability in highly contested environments and collaborative autonomy for kill chain closure, capabilities that are possible thanks to Sparrowhawk’s constant connection with the launching aircraft which is used to send back vital information for decision making.

The Sparrowhawk might surveil an area for hours and turn back to rendezvous with the mothership holding at a safe distance, thanks to its hybrid electric propulsion system that allows an endurance of more than ten hours and a range of 500 nautical miles. Once in the safe area, well away from hostile warplanes or anti-air systems, the larger UAS can snatch the Sparrowhawk out of the sky via the integrated in-flight recovery system and continue its mission.

The integrated in-flight recovery system is a very interesting piece of technology. The mothership, which in the GA-ASI video presentation is an MQ-9B SkyGuardian, deploys a towline from inside the pylon used by Sparrowhawk, trailing a small orange spherical mass which serves the double purpose of stabilizing the towline and allowing the SUAS to grab the cable.

Once Sparrowhawk is in position near the towline, a small flap on the left side of its fuselage opens to help the cable get near the aircraft as it maneuvers. Then, a second flap opens in front of the first one, blocking the towline in position as the orange mass is caught between the two flaps before both flaps close securing the line. The SUAS wings then return to their stowed position by rotating 90 degrees and the mothership starts retracting the towline to secure Sparrowhawk under the pylon.

The company had already anticipated last year that the expendable sUAS will enable EW/SIGINT (Electronic warfare/SIGnals INTelligence) and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) missions in a contested environment, thanks to its swappable 60-lb payload in the nose. Among the payload options the company mentioned imaging radar, SIGINT/ELINT, jamming and day/night imaging sensor packages.

A further example was provided with this year’s overview, stating that a SkyGuardian could release a Sparrowhawk to search for hostile anti-air systems, probing a denied environment so that it could report back about the radar or other systems that powered on or detected it. Sparrowhawk could then respond with an electronic attack of its own to clear the way for other aircraft coming in behind it, jamming an enemy radar to deny its ability to sense a strike package passing through the area, or supporting Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) missions.

Another SUAS was also featured in the overview provided by GA-ASI, called Longshot.

Developed under a contract for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), Longshot is designed to be launched from larger UAS or manned aircraft while in hostile airspace and defend the mothership from hostile aircraft by using its air-to-air missiles, either by sweeping the route ahead of the manned aircraft or staying in formation in a close escort role.

An interesting example mentioned by GA-ASI is the employment of Longshot by bombers, giving them an “emergency” air-to-air capability: “Imagine if a friendly bomber was enroute during a combat mission and allied battle networks detected the approach of hostile fighters. LongShot would let the bomber crew go on offense against the threat without the need for its own escorts or the retasking of friendly fighters, preserving its ability to service its targets as planned.”

- General Atomics Provides Detailed Look At Sparrowhawk Air-Launched And Air-Retrievable Small UASArtist rendering of GA-ASI’s new LongShot SUAS, currently in development with DARPA. (Photo: GA-ASI)

Longshot features a stealthy design with a V-tail, straight wings and internal weapons bays. No info were provided about the dimensions, however the drone is represented armed with AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range radar guided missiles and the weapons bays where they are carried occupy about half the length of the drone, so the total length could be around 7 or 8 meters, as the AMRAAM is 3.7 meters long. Also, no info were provided about the engine, which is not visible in the image.

DARPA’s LongShot program was announced earlier this year and has awarded contracts to General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman for preliminary Phase I design work. Northrop Grumman also unveiled a concept art of the design that will be submitted for the program, showing a jet-powered drone with V-tail and sweptback or delta wings. Contrary to GA-ASI proposal, this one seem to be centered around the external carriage of the air-to-air weapons, however some panels on the fuselage may suggest also the presence of additional weapons bays.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - General Atomics Provides Detailed Look At Sparrowhawk Air-Launched And Air-Retrievable Small UAS
Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

Israel Tested An Airborne Laser To Shoot Down Drones

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - Israel Tested An Airborne Laser To Shoot Down Drones
The airborne laser installed at the cargo door of the Cessna 208B testbed. In the box: a target drone while being hit by the laser. (Photo: Israeli Ministry of Defense)

The Israeli airborne laser prototype achieved a 100% success rate against target drones over the sea at different altitudes and ranges above one kilometer.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense announced on June 21, 2021 that its Weapons Development and Technology Infrastructure Administration (MAFAT in Hebrew) unit, together with the Israeli Air Force and Elbit Systems, tested a new airborne High-Power Laser system to intercept and destroy several drones at various altitudes and at varying ranges. The first-of-its-kind test was defined as a major technological breakthrough by Defense Minister Benjamin “Benny” Gantz.

Very few details were disclosed, with the Haaretz Newspaper mentioning that the system uses an electrical laser, instead of chemical lasers used during similar tests in the past, and it was able to intercept and shoot down the drones at a range of over one kilometer. However, the work on the prototype is still going on and it is expected to be completed in about three or four years, with the range increased to the tens of kilometers and eventually, by the end of the decade, to the hundreds of kilometers.

Regarding the platform for the laser, the photos published by the Ministry of Defense show that the system was installed at the cargo door of a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, registered as 4X-CZE and visible on ADS-B tracking websites, which operated over the sea South-West of Tel Aviv last week. Should the system become operational, the goal is to install the laser on transport aircraft at first, and then make the system compact enough to be installed on other smaller platform such as UAVs.

The plan is to use this laser to intercept small drones, rockets and mortar shells while complementing the other Israeli systems, such as Iron Dome, with many advantages. One of the more relevant advantages is the cost, as a laser intercept would cost just few dollars instead of the 100,000 dollars of one of Iron Dome’s Tamir missiles.

As you may already know, commercially available drones cost few hundred dollars and have been widely used by militants for attacks mainly in the Middle East (but also in South America), prompting many countries to heavily invest in anti-UAV defenses. However, some of the solutions involve an expense of thousands of dollars just to destroy a drone that costs a tenth of that money, which sounds a little disproportionate. The laser employment should even the economic balance between these low-cost threats and the systems used to counter them.

Laser technologies for the defense against rockets and mortars have already been in development in the 1990s in Israel and in the USA, both as joint and independent projects. While the United States went on with the development of these systems, Israel abandoned the idea in the early 2000s to focus on a missile solution, leading to the birth of Iron Dome. Then, two years ago, a technological breakthrough allowed Israel to resume working on the laser, this time the electric laser instead of the chemical laser. A land-based laser defense system is also in the works.

Israeli Airborne Laser 2 - Israel Tested An Airborne Laser To Shoot Down Drones
The Cessna 208B testbed takes off for a test of the laser. In the boxes: the laser system, the ADS-B track of one of the test flights and a drone as viewed by the laser’s targeting system. (Photo: Israeli Ministry of Defense)

The electric laser, also known as electrolaser, is a directed energy weapon that employs the laser to create an electrically conductive laser-induced plasma channel, which is then used to send down to the target a powerful electric current to kill it. The whole system is powered only by electric current, unlike the chemical laser which uses the energy generated by chemical reactions to reach megawatt power levels.

Similar laser C-UAS (Counter Unmanned Aerial System) and C-RAM (Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar) defenses are being developed also in other countries (mainly the USA), but as we already posted here at The Aviationist, airborne lasers are also in development both for offensive and defensive roles.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - Israel Tested An Airborne Laser To Shoot Down Drones
Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.

The MQ-25 Performs The First Aerial Refueling Between An Unmanned Tanker And Manned Receiver Aircraft

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gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw== - The MQ-25 Performs The First Aerial Refueling Between An Unmanned Tanker And Manned Receiver Aircraft
The MQ-25 T1 test asset refuels a Navy F/A-18 during a flight June 4 at MidAmerica Airport in Illinois. This flight demonstrated that the MQ-25 Stingray can fulfill its tanker mission using the Navy’s standard probe-and-drogue aerial refueling method. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

The new MQ-25 unmanned tanker achieved the important milestone by refueling a U.S. Navy F/A-18F over Illinois.

The MQ-25 Stingray performed the first ever air-to-air refueling operation between an unmanned tanker and a manned receiver aircraft, in this case a U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet. The successful test happened on June 4, 2021, with the Boeing-owned MQ-25 T1 test asset flying from MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah (Illinois) and employing the Cobham Aerial Refueling Store (ARS), the same used by F/A-18s, to perform the refueling operation.

“This flight lays the foundation for integration into the carrier environment, allowing for greater capability toward manned-unmanned teaming concepts,” said Rear Adm. Brian Corey who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. “MQ-25 will greatly increase the range and endurance of the future carrier air wing – equipping our aircraft carriers with additional assets well into the future.”

During the flight, as disclosed by NAVAIR, the Super Hornet approached the MQ-25 while conducting a preliminary formation evaluation, wake survey and drogue tracking, before receiving the green light to go ahead and plug its probe in the ARS’s drogue deployed by the unmanned aircraft. According to the press release, the MQ-25 performed a “wet refueling”, effectively transferring fuel to the F/A-18 (as opposed to a “dry refueling” where there isn’t fuel transfer after contact, often used during test and training flights).

Some more details were provided by Boeing, specifying that the F/A-18 flew in close formation behind MQ-25 to ensure performance and stability prior to refueling, with as little as 20 feet of separation between the two aircraft, while flying at operationally relevant speeds and altitudes. After the safety evaluation, the MQ-25 drogue was extended and the F/A-18 pilot was cleared for the refuel. The MQ-25 T1 performed so far 25 flights, which were integrated by extensive digital simulations of aerial refueling.

“This is our mission, an unmanned aircraft that frees our strike fighters from the tanker role, and provides the Carrier Air Wing with greater range, flexibility and capability,” said Capt. Chad Reed, program manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program office (PMA-268). “Seeing the MQ-25 fulfilling its primary tasking today, fueling an F/A-18, is a significant and exciting moment for the Navy and shows concrete progress toward realizing MQ-25’s capabilities for the fleet.”

MQ 25 Stingray First Unmanned Refueling 2 - The MQ-25 Performs The First Aerial Refueling Between An Unmanned Tanker And Manned Receiver Aircraft
The MQ-25 T1 test asset refuels the Navy F/A-18 during a flight June 4 at MidAmerica Airport in Illinois. This test marked the first ever aerial refueling operation between a manned aircraft and unmanned tanker. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

This test flight provided important data on airwake interactions, as well as guidance and control, that will be analyzed to determine if any further adjustments are needed to improve the Stingray’s software before moving on with the program’s test schedule. The testing with the MQ-25 T1 will continue over the next several months to include flight envelope expansion, engine testing, and deck handling demonstrations aboard an aircraft carrier later this year. For the latter, the MQ-25 will be moved to Norfolk (Virginia).

The MQ-25 T1 flew for the first time with the Cobham ARS under its left wing in December 2020, about one year after the drone’s own first flight, testing how the aircraft’s aerodynamics changed with the addition of the ARS. The following flights contributed to test the aerodynamics of the aircraft and the ARS at various points of the flight envelope, before progressing to the extension and retraction of the hose and drogue used for refueling that paved the way for the first air-to-air refueling.

As we already reported, the MQ-25 T1 is the predecessor to the four engineering development model (EDM) MQ-25 aircraft being produced, the first of which is expected to be delivered later this year. The U.S. Navy is planning to procure more than 70 aircraft, which will replace the F/A-18E Super Hornets in the aerial refueling role they currently have as part of the Carrier Air Wing, becoming also the first operational carrier-based UAV. This way, the Carrier Air Wing will have more Super Hornets available for operational mission, without the need to reserve some of them for the air-to-air refueling mission.

1c874047463801220adcba061ba371a3?s=125&d=mm&r=g - The MQ-25 Performs The First Aerial Refueling Between An Unmanned Tanker And Manned Receiver Aircraft
Stefano D’Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He’s a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he’s also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.
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