USS Vinson Flies F‑35s & Quietly Readies for New Refueling Drone

 In Sea, Air, Forces & Capabilities, U.S. Navy

An F-35C takes off from the USS Carl Vinson.

WASHINGTON: Earlier this month, the USS Carl Vinson broke new ground by becom­ing the first refit­ted air­craft car­ri­er to fly F‑35s as part of its normal flight oper­a­tions. If cur­rent plans hold, it is likely to become the first to fly the Navy’s exper­i­men­tal refu­el­ing drone in a. few years as well. 

The 36-year old Vinson just wrapped up a major refit to accom­mo­date the spe­cial­ized needs of the F‑35, and is prac­tic­ing launch­es and recov­er­ies now off the California coast. While the F‑35 work gar­nered most of the head­lines, crit­i­cal work was also per­formed to pre­pare the ship to oper­ate the MQ-25 Stingray drone, a move that would add hun­dreds of miles of range to car­ri­er air wings.

The ship will deploy with F‑35s in 2021, mark­ing the first deploy­ment of F‑35Cs. Marine F‑35Bs have already deployed on amphibi­ous ships USS Wasp, America, and Essex to the Middle East and Pacific over the past two years. But those ver­ti­cal take­off and land­ing air­craft have dif­fer­ent require­ment than the Navy’s more tra­di­tion­al launch and recov­ery air­craft, which are flying from the Vinson.

The Stingray would likely fit into these flight oper­a­tions by acting as an extra sens­ing node in the sky, push­ing data back and forth between crewed and autonomous sur­face ves­sels and giving the Navy and Marine Corps anoth­er intel­li­gence gath­er­ing asset. As a tanker, it will also extend the range of the Navy’s car­ri­er-based F/A‑18 Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler, and F‑35 fight­ers by hun­dreds of miles. 

Some of the work on the Vinson involved estab­lish­ing an Unmanned Aviation Warfare Center on the ship, along with new net­work infra­struc­ture and com­mand and con­trol equip­ment.

Most of the focus on the Navy’s unmanned efforts have focused on its planned fleet of small, medium, and large unmanned sur­face ves­sels. In July, the service awarded L3 Technologies Inc. a $34.9 mil­lion con­tract for a pro­to­type Medium Unmanned Surface Vessel as part of plans to build about 40 in coming years. Current plans call for the ships to have a dis­place­ment of rough­ly 500 tons. The medium ships are thought to skew more toward mis­sion mod­ules revolv­ing around intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and recon­nais­sance pay­loads and elec­tron­ic war­fare sys­tems.

Earlier this month, the Navy awarded sev­er­al ship­builders con­tracts worth a cumu­la­tive $41 mil­lion to devel­op require­ments and early designs for a new class of Large Unmanned Surface Vessels. The ship is envi­sioned as a crit­i­cal part of a rad­i­cal­ly mod­ern­ized fleet that will rely heav­i­ly on unmanned ships to scout ahead of manned ves­sels, con­duct elec­tron­ic jam­ming and decep­tion, launch long-range mis­siles at tar­gets found by other forces, and keep Chinese and Russian ships and sub­marines away from American car­ri­er strike groups.

The Stingray made its first two-hour flight in September 2019, con­trolled by Boeing pilots on the ground. It is slated to begin a new round of flight tests this fall.

An $805 mil­lion con­tract award­ed to Boeing in 2018 will cover design, devel­op­ment, fab­ri­ca­tion, test and deliv­ery of four Stingrays, lead­ing up to what is expect­ed to be a $13 bil­lion pro­gram for 69 oper­a­tional air­craft and sev­er­al test­ing assets.

A June Government Accountability Office report warned that if the work wasn’t per­formed on the Vinson and the next car­ri­er USS George H.W. Bush, the Navy might have to extend the drone’s devel­op­ment test­ing by up to three years, but Navy offi­cials con­firmed Friday that the first of two upgrades were made to the Vinson, and the pro­gram remains on track.

The Stingray is sched­uled to achieve ini­tial oper­a­tional capa­bil­i­ty by 2024, fol­lowed by the inte­gra­tion of the drones into the Navy’s air wings.

Breaking Defense source|articles

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