Bring Back My Carrier-based Fixed-wing ASW

To be blunt about it, the United States and China are in a new Cold War. While the outcome all should hope for is a repeat of the previous Cold War, the United States unfortunately has to prepare for the worst. One area in particular where the U.S. Navy is severely lacking is carrier-based ASW, or anti-submarine warfare. The Navy did away with its long-ranged ASW asset, the S-3, in the late 90s, as the primary threat to the Navy at the time, the Soviet Navy, was basically completely mothballed following the collapse of the USSR. Today however, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (Chinese Navy) has some 70 known attack submarines, and continues to increase those numbers year after year. For context, the U.S. Navy has just 50, and that number is actually decreasing over time as the Los Angeles class boats are being retired faster than Virginia class boats are being built.

So a major lapse for the U.S. Navy has risen, where aircraft carriers, the primary means of U.S. naval might and power projection, are limited in how to defend against one of China’s primary means of naval might. Yes, aircraft carriers have escort ships that are tasked with hunting submarines, and yes, both the aircraft carriers and her escort ships carry SH-60 Seahawks designed to hunt submarines from the air. However, none of those offer the standoff ranges needed to adequately protect the U.S. Navy’s surface assets against such a submarine-heavy adversary such as China, particularly as China’s surface navy is rapidly approaching parity with the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet, limiting how much time an aircraft carrier’s escort will be able to adequately devote to ASW instead of SuW (surface warfare). Enter the need (again) for a long ranged ASW asset that can be deployed to aircraft carriers, either for long range forward monitoring of a projected path, or for long endurance monitoring of a particular stretch of water, such as narrow seas and straits.

MQ-9A Block 5, courtesy of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

Thankfully, a potential solution already exists. Earlier this year, General Atomics demonstrated the use an MQ-9A Block 5 Reaper UAV to deploy sonobuoys and track an ASW training target on its own. While in itself that is a huge evolution for ASW, allowing UAVs to replace a mission that otherwise takes a manned aircraft with a crew of 9 to perform, it doesn’t really help aircraft carriers, given the MQ-9 is not a carrier-capable airframe. However, the U.S. Navy is about to get a brand new UAV that is carrier-capable in the MQ-25. The MQ-25 is going to be a UAV carrier-capable tanker for the Navy, delivering some 15,000lb of fuel to aircraft 500nmi away from the ship, another mission and role the Navy has sorely lacked since the end of the first Cold War.

MQ-25 carrying the Cobham Aerial Refueling Store during a test flight

MQ-25s are not going to be tanking 24/7 however, particularly given the Navy’s looking to order 72 for 11 carriers (so up to 6 MQ-25s per aircraft carrier). MQ-25s already have 2 external hardpoints in order to carry more fuel and the Cobham Aerial Refueling Store to refuel aircraft in air. What if those two hardpoints are used instead to carry General Atomics’ pneumatic sonobuoy dispenser system (SDS), so that when combined with the MQ-25’s massive internal fuel tanks and highly efficient engine, can provide long range/endurance ASW coverage to the fleet when they’re not tanking?

Don’t get me wrong, the P-8 is a fantastic platform for ASW. Arguably the best ever made. But there’s just 128 in hand/on order for the U.S. Navy, and like with most every other U.S. Navy assets, there’s simply not enough of them for all the tasks the Navy has, particularly given the P-8 is one of the few assets the entire U.S. military has that can deploy the long range anti-ship missile (LRASM). They’re going to be worked hard monitoring the Suez, Strait of Gibraltar, Malacca Strait, Strait of Hormuz, and other critical bodies of water. Just adding a capability to a platform already going to the carriers, specifically to provide long-ranged ASW, can help carry the workload the P-8s have, and allow them to do other taskings beyond simply carrier escort.

Could an MQ-25 with the SDS pods be launched from a carrier just off of Guam and still be able to provide ASW over the first island chain? How much of a difference in the naval battle would that make, if an aircraft carrier could independently hunt for submarines that pose a direct threat to it and its strike group 1000 miles out? It’s a capability that should cost little to nothing to implement beyond procurement, offers no risk, but massive rewards.

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