The US Navy (USN) is planning to award Northrop Grumman a sole-source contract to modify the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye’s mission computer and display software so that the early warning aircraft could control unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).

The manned-unmanned teaming experiment was announced online on 17 March. It came a few days before the service said it wants to move some command-and-control activities of future carrier-based UAVs, such as the Boeing MQ-25A Stingray in-flight refuelling tanker, off-ship via manned-unmanned teaming technologies.

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye lands aboard aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford c US Navy.jpeg

Source: US Navy

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye lands aboard aircraft carrier USS Gerald R Ford

“There is going to be a control centre on the carrier for our unmanned air vehicles,” said Vice Admiral James Kilby, deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities, in testimony before the US House Armed Services Committee on 18 March. “But, ultimately, in the future, let’s say there’s a fuelling area for a strike [aircraft] or some other mission area, it’d be great if a manned pilot saw weather and we could divert and move that [UAV] and not have to go to the carrier to do that control.”

The unmanned MQ-25A tanker is intended to extend the reach of the Lockheed Martin F-35C, which has an unrefuelled range of about 1,200nm (2,200km) – not long enough to keep US aircraft carriers outside of the striking distance of China’s land-based ballistic and cruise missiles.

The USN plans to examine using the MQ-25A also for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic attack and strike missions after it figures out how to handle the UAV’s operations from a carrier deck, says Kilby.

The MQ-25A might be able to jam radar or provide another form of electronic attack in coordination with a manned aircraft, while within an adversary’s anti-access and area denial zone, a contested airspace where aircraft are within range of missile and electronic attack, he says.

“Perhaps I can provide some surveillance [using the MQ-25A] and I can save deck space where I don’t have to have five E-2Ds on the carrier,” says Kilby. The twin-turboprop E-2D is the largest aircraft aboard USN aircraft carriers, so the removal of one or more examples could free up substantial space for other aircraft.

The E-2D carries an APY-9, a disc-shaped rotating radar dome, on its back that is used for early detection and tracking of aircraft and cruise missiles. It also has identification friend or foe capabilities, electronic support measures and sensors for target identification. The USN calls the five-crew aircraft a “digital quarterback” because of its role as a command-and-control station, as well as its ability to collect and pass information.

As part of the E-2D manned-unmanned teaming experiment, Northrop is “to support an end-to-end lab demonstration of manned and unmanned teaming, along with technical support to develop and verify radar calibration files for a VX-20 aircraft,” the USN notice says. VX-20 is short for Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 20.

MQ-25_T1 with aerial fuel store c Boeing

Source: Boeing

MQ-25A with aerial fuel store

In congressional testimony, Kilby says manned-unmanned teaming for the MQ-25A would be enabled by the USN’s Project Overmatch, an effort to develop a fleet communications network that would use artificial intelligence to coordinate spread-out operations for aircraft, surface ships and submarines, as well as US Marine Corps vehicles and equipment.

The service has taken a conservative approach to developing, testing and integrating the MQ-25A into its carrier operations.

“What we’re focusing on is launching, landings, moving it around on the deck, bringing it up [and] taking it down in the hangar bay,” says Kilby. “How do we position those assets and how can we support the air wings?”

The MQ-25A is still in the testing phase. The USN wants the UAV to achieve initial operational capability by 2024. It plans to buy as many as 76 examples of the aircraft as part of its programme of record.

The service wants the MQ-25A to serve as a pathfinder for how to operate future UAVs aboard the limited deck space of an aircraft carrier. The USN believes its future aircraft carrier-based fleet could be made of more than 40% UAVs, says Kilby.

Still, the service’s “crawl-walk-run” approach toward development of the MQ-25A and other UAVs, as well as its “Unmanned Campaign Framework”, a plan released on 16 March, has frustrated members of the US House Armed Services Committee who want to see a more aggressive and detailed roadmap for the future.

“I was really disappointed in what I saw as a lack of substance in the [Unmanned Campaign Framework] plan,” said Representative Elaine Luria on 18 March. “I thought it was full of buzzwords and platitude, but really short on details. With the recent acquisition programme failures that we’ve had on the last several ship classes, rightly those of us on this committee are skeptical of the navy’s ability to shepherd this new technology.”