Even as reports surface of American supercarriers and their embarked air-wings hurriedly steaming towards the Korean peninsula, the saga of the Navy's carrier based unmanned aircraft program seems to have taken yet another turn for the worse. Instead of adhering to direction by both the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the Deputy Secretary of Defense to maximize the strike range of the carrier air wing it appears that naval aviation leadership is placing its finger on the MQ-25 design scale and prioritizing unrefueled endurance for the intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance (ISR) mission at the expense of great fuel offload for long-range mission tanking.
During recent discussions naval aviation leaders stated that the threshold requirements for the as yet un-designed MQ-25 would include the ability to remain airborne for 12 hours in order to perform overnight ISR missions while the carrier deck is shut down. This requirement for MQ-25 to “bridge the night” is a “cut and paste” from the Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program requirement, which was canceled after a review of Joint ISR capabilities concluded that a carrier-based ISR aircraft wasn't necessary. The problem for MQ-25? Designing an aircraft to fly 12 hoursunrefueled negatively impacts its ability to carry large fuel (or other) payloads over long distances. During UCLASS, the ISR endurance requirement came at the expense of internal weapons payload. On MQ-25, the 12-hour requirement applies a “tax” on the aircraft's long-range refueling capacity.