How Lockheed Martin's legendary Skunkworks is beating China's 'carrier killers'

Uss george h.w. bushUS NavyThe USS George H.W. Bush

WASHINGTON — The US Navy’s 10 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers have long been the envy of the world with unrivalled ability to project power on any shore anywhere on the globe — but they’re in danger.

US adversaries — China specifically — have purpose-built very long range missiles known as “carrier killers” which outrange the carriers by a healthy 300 or so miles.

But thanks to Lockheed Martin’s legendary Skunkworks, which developed the SR-71 Blackbird in 32 months, that problem may soon get answered with the MQ-25A tanker drone.

Rob Weiss, general manager of Skunkworks, told reporters at Lockheed Martin’s Washington DC office this week that the Department of Defence and Lockheed were “frankly doing all the right things to accelerate this program and get it in the hands of the warfighter sooner rather than later.”

It’s no secret that new weapons acquisition in the US military can take a ridiculously long time, but Weiss, a Navy man of the 1980s, feels the need for speed.

The addition of a flying, unmanned tanker that could have some stealth integrated will “provide more legs, more reach for both the F-18 and the F-35,” said Weiss.

With China’s unilateral land grabs in the South China Sea and its burgeoning navy and missile force prowess, Weiss finds it “imperative, frankly, to national security” that the US extend the range of its carrier strike aircraft. Giving the US Navy’s jets more range means the carriers can stay out very long range missiles in China and Russia‘s inventories.

Mq-25a stingray x-47bUS Navy PhotoX-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D, a previous name for the MQ-25a) launches from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in 2013.

The MQ-25A stingray will be the Navy’s first carrier-based tanker and carrier-based drone, but in the future we could see drones take on a bigger role, according to Weiss.

“It’s up to the Navy to find what they want beyond an MQ-25,” said Weiss. “It starts with this tanker. What may come after that, we’re going to listen to our customer and see what they say.”

But whatever the US military needs, Weiss and Skunkworks will be there to quickly put some of the best minds in the industry to work.

Weiss said the Navy should put out requests for proposals on building the MQ-25 by this summer.

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