NORFOLK -- A drone command center has been installed aboard an aircraft carrier for the first time, signifying the Navy's commitment to a future of unmanned aviation.
The center was installed last week aboard the San Diego-based USS Carl Vinson, and the next one will be placed next year aboard the Norfolk-based USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, according to the Navy.
The command centers will be used for a drone that's still under development that will refuel aircraft and conduct intelligence and surveillance operations. The MQ-XX will be the Navy's first carrier-based unmanned aircraft.
The drone is being designed to replace the F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet in their roles as aerial tankers. Doing so will preserve the fighter jets' flight hours for their primary missions, according to congressional testimony on Wednesday from Vice Admiral Paul A. Grosklags, commander of Naval Air Systems Command.
The Navy said the MQ-XX is scheduled to be operational in the mid-2020s.
"Having a UAV asset that provides persistent, potentially 24/7, surveillance coverage for the strike group is a game changer," said Rear Adm. James Loeblein, commander of Carrier Strike Group 1, in a statement. "Putting additional ISR capacity into the warfare commander's hands increases the flexibility and warfare capability of the entire strike group."
The initials referred to an "unmanned aerial vehicle" and "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaisance."
The Navy plans to phase in the MQ-XX system and apply lessons it learns from the Carl Vinson to other aircraft carriers. The Navy declined to say how large the command center is or specify where it's located, but it did say it uses space freed up by relocating diagnostic maintenance equipment.
The completion of all phases of installation is scheduled for 2022. Future aircraft carriers are being built with the ability to operate drones from them in mind.
"We are carving out precious real estate on board the carrier, knowing that the carrier of the future will have manned and unmanned systems on it," Capt. Karl Thomas, the Carl Vinson's commanding officer, said in a statement.
The MQ-XX is the result of testing the X-47B, which made history in 2013 when it became the first unmanned aircraft to take off and land on a carrier, the Norfolk-based USS George H.W. Bush. In 2015, the X-47B also successfully conducted an autonomous mid-air refueling.
The Carl Vinson Strike Group is scheduled to deploy to the western Pacific in 2017. The Eisenhower is scheduled to deploy to the Middle East this summer.