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Could US Navy Aircraft Carriers Fight Alongside Drone ‘Warships’?

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Unmanned aircraft

The has operated smaller aircraft, such as the Scan Eagle and RQ-21, from its warships for years.

The MQ-8B, an unmanned helicopter, has been in service for over a decade, and the MQ-8C entered service in 2019. They mostly operate from guided-missile frigates and littoral combat ships to conduct targeting and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.

The Navy and Marine Corps are both in early testing of longer-range shore-based drones, working with the MQ-4C and MQ-9A, respectively.

The most anticipated asset, however, is the MQ-25 aerial-refueling drone, which will be the first carrier-based drone in service.

An MQ-25 refueled an airborne F/A-18 for the first time in June 2021 and conducted non-flight testing aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush — its first test period aboard the carrier — in December.

The MQ-25 is designed to carry 15,000 pounds of fuel — enough for two aircraft — about 500 nautical miles, allowing it to extend an F/A-18’s operating range by 300 miles. The drone will free up manpower and take over the refueling mission from F/A-18s that were assigned that role.

The extended range will also help the Navy counter the threat of long-range anti-ship missiles. Navy officials say the MQ-25 may take on ISR and strike missions in the future.

The Navy plans to acquire 72 MQ-25s and hopes to have them operating on carriers by 2025.

Unmanned vessels

The Navy also wants to develop and procure three types of unmanned surface and undersea vehicles: the Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle (LUSV), Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MUSV), and Extra-Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV).

Based on commercial designs, LSUVs are expected to be 200 to 300 feet long and displace 1,000 to 2,000 tons fully loaded, putting them on par with a corvette. They are meant to be low-cost, high-endurance ships that can be reconfigured for strike and anti-ship missions, with anywhere between 16 and 32 cells for vertical-launch missiles.

MUSVs are to have a similar design but smaller size, coming in at 45 to 190 feet long and displacing around 500 tons — roughly the same as a patrol vessel. They are intended to

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