The F-35 is the United states latest fighter jet. It is also the future naval aircraft-carrier based fighter jet aircraft (F-35C with C as in Carrier based). An F-35C has a realistic combat range of about 500 miles, i.e. 800 km. Combat range as seen in the chart below is the realistic range a fighter jet has with the option still for, hold your breath, you have heard it before, dogfight.
MQ-25 Stingray is an air-refueling aircraft under development (2018). In the chart below the air-refueling of the F-35C:s is thought to be done with this carrier based fuel-tanking aircraft. But they could also refuel the F-35C with a bigger tanker like for example the C-130 tanker, although this cannot start from or land on a carrier. C-130 is an aircraft with multiple functions. Some are made for transporting materiel and soldiers or dropping large bombs, and some are made for refueling of other aircraft in the air. Some are made for other purposes.
Depending on how many fighters sent up and what tankers they use and how many tankers in the air, the possible approach for the mission will vary. Simplified, the possibilities regarding flight paths plus the opponents capability will set the boundaries for the mission. The possible outcome will mainly depend on the planner and the level of professionalism of his crews. Of course the level of yours and your opponents technology will matter too. And the rest are due to circumstances like weather, malfunction or the battles randomized chaos.
In this example, I did not count on hanging extra tanks on the fighter aircraft. Those would have significantly reduced the number of offensive weapons and sensors hanging on the pylons. As you will learn, one MQ-25 Stingray can only refuel one fighter jet at a time of approximatly about 2-4 minutes. 2 minutes minimum. Two fighters need to work together as one tactical unit and both must follow through all the way to the target. Two fighters are refueling in the air approximatly ten to twenty percent of their combined flight time, using only one tanker and tanking the two fighters only once per aircraft in a mission, and it has to be initiated within the first 360-430 miles of flight.
If one calculates the numbers correctly, one will come to the conclusion that the range of a Carrier Air Wing increases by at the most 3/4 if this Air Wing is air-refueled only once during one and the same mission.
If the Air Wing is air-refueled twice during a single mission, the range is still limited by the combat radius the aircraft has. 500 miles + 500 miles which become a 1,000 miles (1,600 km) is in any case the maximum range.
With a single MQ-25A Stingray, one can only air-refuel one (1) F-35C per mission, once on the flight path to the target and once on the way back, if it takes about 4 minutes for a refueling.
The F-35B is the VTOL and STOVL variant of the aircraft. It must sacrifice a considerable amount of fuel for this capability of being able to vertically take off and land on the spot (VTOL) or start on a very short stretch and land on the spot (STOVL). The individual F-35B pilot must have enough fuel left to make a what is a fuel costly vertical landing on the aircraft carrier, but a number of aircrafts at a time can descend to land on the aircraft carrier. That alone compensates for a lot of the sacrificed fuel, since a number of F-35B doesn’t have to loiter in the air waiting to get clearance to land one by one. So in an operational environment, the sacrificed fuel doesn’t make that much of an impact on the mission range compared to if using the F-35C. Did I mention, the F-35B can also air refuel.
The combat radius of an F-35C could actually be as low as 430 miles if you want to have good safety margins. But if we assume that the combat radius is 500 miles and that one Stingray refuel one F-35C once per mission with an air refueling distance of about 60 miles, then the F-35C aircraft must return after a total flight distance of 870 miles from the aircraft carrier. After air refueling, it can fly a distance of 370 miles + the return distance of the 870 miles = 1,240 miles. The F-35C has a maximum range of 1,350 miles. In total, it gives a margin of 6 minutes for all F-35C to circulate and descend for landing on an aircraft carrier, which corresponds to a distance of 43 miles at a speed of 435 miles per hour on a low altitude. It would provide a four-group F-35C, supported under a mission by four Stingrays, approximately 1+ minute for landing per plane, if only one aircraft is touching the deck and taxing in at a time.
A third or a fourth of all the aircrafts onboard the carrier will be under maintenance at any given time. As one can count on at least one Stingray always being on maintenance aboard the Carrier, one must make place for one extra Stingray on the Carrier. Several Stingrays will occupy a lot of space on the aircraft carrier at the expense of at least twice the space required for the F-35C. Then it’s probably better to invest in the existing E/A-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft and the radar plane E2-C Hawkeye battle management and control aircraft, if you want to optimize. These must still be carried onboard the Carrier.
But how optimal is it to base three or four MQ-25 Stingray on a lone Carrier group? The Carrier group would have to adjust their distance to the goal after any caprice of the Stingray mechanics, so these Stingrays must be kept in top condition so that the aircraft carrier group is not constantly forced to maneuver into a new position in a jerky way.
The United States has around a dozen carriers but some of them must be on rotation in the US at every given time. China has two aircraft carriers. The US carriers allows the fighter aircraft to carry bigger payloads, i.e. weapons, because of the carriers typicly steam-catapults that catapults the aircrafts into air, combined with the thrust of the aircrafts engines. However, the US Navy needs to project power in many parts of the world simultaneously.
The fact that the US Navy’s aircraft-carriers have nuclear propulsion does not mean that the carrier groups as such have longer range in reality. There are many ships with different tasks in a carrier group. A single fighter aircraft can perhaps fly four missions in a day and in those four missions it will consume the amount of fuel equivalent to a tank truck and a trailer full of fuel. That equals up to several ships full of fuel only for the aircrafts alone. Some ships protect the carriers from air-threats, some ships protect the carriers from underwater threats, some ships supply the carriers’ surrounding group with fuel oil and some ships supply food and beverage to all the crew-members of all the ships.
In reality, friendly harbors are important during a far away mission.
Now you know the basics.
Look at where your country or any country of your choice is located and try to imagine how the US or China could tackle them or come at them using possible means. What countries are likely to display animosity and what countries do you think would display the opposite to the two nations respectively. Check out where they have friendly airbases and/or ports in friendly countries if you can. You may know if there are naval ships with air-defense systems on it based in naval ports. Naval ships air-defense systems against aerodynamic targets rarely have more than a 120 km (75 miles) range and it is a defensive weapon and should not be used offensively, i.e. it is there to protect the ship or group of ships first of all.
If you know where different nations ground based air-defense systems i.e. surface-to-air missiles are deployed for the moment being or will be deployed, you get extra credit. They are there to protect cruical infrastructure or military installations or mobile equipment and are also not offensive weapons. But such knowledge is rarely public knowledge unless the country is at war and its adversary or other players reveals their location, as is the case with Russias S-400 and S-300 systems and their radar systems in Syria.
Use the internet to find out things if it is not enough to use the CIA WORLD FACTBOOK, and it usually isn’t. The variables are many and intertwined which makes the task incredibly complicated. The more you know the more complicated it gets. Mix as many variables as you think you can manage for this task, but start learning how to slim them down effectively. I am only talking about military targets here. And I am only talking about air raids with F-35 starting from air strips or carriers.
This is not meant to be an exam that I will scrutinize as if it was a Masters degree. You are bound to not knowing what type of bases your country has where, and what capabilities these have. It doesn’t have to be accurate, you’re in training! But part of the training involves finding out as much useful information as you can. I am first and utmost training you to be an intelligence person. Information on the Internet can be accurate, grayish, dubious or just plain false, and I really cannot teach you how to find out accurate information for yourself. You have to have a sense for realities and reason to be able to do that, and that cannot be taught. At least not if it is not taught from an early age.
Remember, choice of the wrong means is less of a liability for a commander than failing to act! (Old Swedish jungle-proverb)
Roger M. Klang, defense political spokesman for the Christian Values Party (Kristna Värdepartiet) in Sweden