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Asia-Pacific , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

Troubles Facing the U.S. Military in the Pacific Today and Why the New MQ-25 Carrier Based Tanker Drone Represents an Effective Solution

July 19th - 2018

With the United State military's combat aircraft fleet today overwhelmingly based on designs conceptualised first and foremost to most effectively wage a war against the Soviet Union in the European theatre, thought to be the most critical and heavily contested combat arena should the Cold War ever become hot, the armed forces have increasingly struggled to adapt these platforms to operations in other regions which have since the USSR's collapse gained key strategic importance. This has been a key issue particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, where unlike in Europe American carriers and the vast majority of its airbases are separated from enemy targets by vast expanses of sea - meaning aircraft will need to engage in combat of a profoundly different nature to the European theatre. A number of studies by a number of think tanks including RAND Corporation have noted that the U.S. air fleet, even if it enjoyed an absolute qualitative advantage against Chinese fighters under ideal circumstances, would struggle to operate offensively over the South and East China seas due to the sheer distances involved. The vulnerability of large tanker aircraft such as the KC-46 and KC-767, lacking survivability against long range anti aircraft missiles or stealth capabilities to evade detection, was in particular raised repeatedly as an Achilles heel of America's ability to wage an air campaign in the region - as these aircraft could easily be targeted mid sortie leaving U.S. combat aircraft, lacking the fuel to return to bases or carriers independently, stranded and forced either to land at enemy airfields or to eject and destroy their aircraft.

Operations in the Pacific theatre posed few challenges for the United States military throughout the Cold War era and up until the early 2000s, with China's second generation Vietnam War era air fleet grossly outmatched by American platforms two generations ahead of them. U.S. carrier strike groups were able to operate in and sail through the Taiwan Strait and approach Chinese coastal waters with little threat to their survival, and it was only in the 2000s that the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) begun to field a highly effective modern air superiority fleet alongside sophisticated maritime anti access area denial capabilities which force American warships give its territory a wide berth. The result is that today, combat aircraft operating from U.S. carriers such as he F-18E and F-35B/C are well out of range of their targets in the even of a regional war. Carriers remain viable for blue water control, but not for offensive power projection which is their primary purpose, due to recent developments in Chinese long range anti ship capabilities and the restrictive range of American combat aircraft .

Not only are carriers no longer viable means to launch air attacks on the Chinese mainland, but U.S. land based fighters also struggle to reach Chinese coasts from Pacific bases due both to their short ranges, more than sufficient for the European theatre but far too short for Asia, and to the poor survivability of their bulky tanker aircraft to the latest long range anti aircraft missile systems - from the land based S-400 to the air launched PL-15. The U.S. Navy has as a result of this conundrum, one of the greatest challenges facing the United States military today, commissioned a new support aircraft which is set to act as an effective adapter for America's European tailored air fleet to allow it to operate optimally over the Pacific against today's threats. Exploiting recent developments in both drone and stealth technology, the Boeing MQ-25 Stingray unmanned aerial vehicle is an advanced stealth drone designed to operate from the Navy's Nimitz and Gerald Ford Class supercarriers. It's primary role is not to engage enemy forces, but rather to provide aerial refuelling for the Navy's combat aircraft and thereby significantly extend their operational range - allowing carriers operating beyond China's maritime A2AD zone to launch sorties against the mainland from a safe distance.

While the Stingray is still in the early development stages, footage of prototype platforms carrying out test flights from carrier decks have already emerged and given the importance of the platform they are likely to be prioritised for entry into service as soon as possible. The U.S. Navy's goal for the aircraft is to be able to deliver (6,800 kg) of fuel total to up to six F-18E or F-35C fighters airplanes at a range 930 km a significantly enhancing the strike range of these platforms. While the solution is hardly ideal, and more drones to carry out long range operations will mean less capacity for fighters onboard each carrier for larger operations, it does present the navy and the military as a whole with perhaps the most effective means of launching airstrikes from outside China's maritime A2AD zone. With the Stingray considerably smaller than large tankers operated by the Air Force, approximately the size of an F-18E fighter, and making use of advanced stealth capabilities, their survivability at range will be similar to that of a fighter - considerably greater than that of bulkier tanker aircraft.

Ultimately the MQ-25 is set to facilitate more effective operations by America's fourth and fifth generation fighters in the increasingly contested Pacific theatre. Should it prove successful, a similar platform may well be developed for the Air Force - or else carrier based platforms may be used to support Air Force operations by providing mid course refuelling. Though the U.S. Air Force's sixth generation heavy fighter, currently under development under DARPA's Air Dominance Initiative to replace the F-22 Raptor, is likely to have a considerably greater range than its predecessors to reflect the emergence of the Pacific as America's most critical field of operations, rather than Europe, the MQ-25 will remain a critical asset until then. Whether China will respond by specialising its own elite fighters such as the J-20 air superiority platform to seek and destroy these new stealth tankers, or else further extend maritime A2AD with new anti ship missile platforms to put further pressure on the fleet of light tankers, remains to be seen.

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