Boeing Defense, Space & Security recently won a hotly contested contract to design, develop, fabricate, test, deliver, and support four MQ-25A Stingray unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), integrating them into the aircraft carrier air wing, something the US Navy has been looking at for some time.

“An unmanned aerial refuelling capability will extend the range of the carrier air wing and make better use of navy combat strike fighters that currently conduct aerial refuelling missions, while reducing the human risk factor of such missions,” says Captain Chad Reed, Navy Unmanned Carrier Aviation programme manager. “Once operational, the MQ-25A Stingray will be the world’s first carrier-based, unmanned aircraft, providing a robust organic refuelling capability to the carrier air wing,”

Under the contract, worth an initial $805.3m, Boeing will deliver the fully operational MQ-25As by 2024.

The deal was labelled “historic” by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, who said when the contract was announced: “We will look back on this day and recognise that this event represents a dramatic shift in the way we define warfighting requirements, work with industry, integrate unmanned and manned aircraft, and improve the lethality of the airwing, all at relevant speed.”

Boeing takes the lead

At the beginning of 2017, speculation grew that the US Navy was exploring how drones could be used to refuel fighter jets mid-flight. Although Boeing eventually secured the contract, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics also submitted bids. Northrop Grumman was initially interested in tendering but withdrew from the process before making an offer.

“The fact that we’re already preparing for first flight is thanks to an outstanding team who understands the Navy.”

At the end of 2017 Boeing began to tease the industry, first via Twitter, suggesting it would “change future air power”. A few days later it unveiled its concept, hidden under a black cover. It said the UAV was already completing engine runs before heading to the flight ramp for deck handling demonstrations.

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On news of the contract win Boeing president and CEO Leanne Caret said: “As a company, we made an investment in both our team and in an unmanned aircraft system that meets the US Navy’s refuelling requirements. The fact that we’re already preparing for first flight is thanks to an outstanding team who understands the Navy and their need to have this important asset on carrier decks around the world.”

“Boeing is required to successfully complete the development of the MQ-25A system that meets all key performance parameters, complete full system integration, complete a formal test and evaluation programme, and develop affordable and executable manufacturing processes,” Captain Reed says, adding he expects flight testing to begin in 2021.

Work will largely be carried out at the company’s St Louis headquarters in Missouri, although numerous other sites in the US and elsewhere will make contributions. Ultimately, it’s believed the navy will acquire as many as 72 of the UAVs, costing around $13bn according to the US Navy sources.

Integrating the MQ-25A into carrier wing operations

Tankers for mid-air refuelling have been a concern for the Pentagon for some time. In 2009, under the Obama administration, military leaders were faced with having to reduce costs, which ultimately saw the closure of programmes aimed at addressing major concerns about the ageing tanker fleet.

Adding to those difficulties has been the different approaches used by US forces to refuel in the air. Traditionally there have been two methods, a ‘flying boom’ or ‘probe and drogue’. The US Air Force uses the boom while the US Navy and Marines favour the probe and drogue, making some operations more complex, as became evident during the second Iraq war.

“The biggest challenge is designing and building a system to interact with the shipboard infrastructure.”

The introduction of the MQ-25A drone to carriers will be a major step towards upgrading the carrier wings. The drone will use the traditional catapult and launch and recovery systems, meaning there only needs to be modest adaptation to the carrier fleet in order to incorporate them.

“The MQ-25 system requires ship-based control stations to launch and control air vehicles and transfer data while operating from the carrier,” explains Reed. “Carrier modifications will prepare mission control spaces outfitted with control and connectivity systems to support testing and eventual operational use. These modifications will occur in a phased approach and coincide with planned maintenance periods in order to minimise the impact to deployed fleet operations.”

The UAV will have the capacity to carry 15,000 pounds of fuel and will be used to refuel the F/A-18 Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler, and F-35C fighter jets, extending their range and time in the air significantly. Taking off from the deck like any other aircraft, the MQ-25A will have a range of around 500 nautical miles. Personnel aboard the carrier will operate it using satellite and radio communications to coordinate refuelling with pilots.

“The biggest challenge is designing and building a system to interact with the shipboard infrastructure and coordinating with other programs to ensure alignment as they update their systems,” says Reed. Once back on deck, a handheld controller can be used to guide the UAVs.

Currently, the only tanker in the air wing is the Rhino, meaning when deployed, the MQ-25A will add capacity. Together with a new range of weaponry, they will offer an additional 300 to 400 nautical miles of strike range, according to the navy.

“The MQ-25A will extend the carrier air wing mission effectiveness range, close the carrier air wing tanker gap, and increase the number of manned aircraft available for the strike fighter missions,” adds Reed.

Fuelling the future of air combat

“Successful delivery of the MQ-25A to the carrier air wing will be a trailblazing moment for naval aviation,” says Reed. “It’s the first step toward integrating unmanned technology into carrier air wing operations to provide unprecedented capabilities to the warfighter.

“The MQ-25A will be an integral part of the future carrier air wing by providing an organic aerial refuelling (mission and recovery tanking) capability.”

After a few difficult years for Boeing’s defence arm, it is thought the contract might be a turnaround in fortunes. Analysts are tipping the market for medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs to be worth as much as $22.2bn between 2017 and 2026. Analysis by the Teal Group suggests it is currently the second largest market segment, the largest being unmanned combat aerial vehicles, worth just over $27bn in the same period.