Last month, Lockheed Martin released artists renderings of their intended entry into the Navy’s contract competition for a carrier-based drone refueler that could help extend the range of the Navy’s aircraft. Impressive as the images were, Lockheed’s pitch remains little more than images and promises regarding what their drone’s capabilities will be. Promises not withstanding, it remains, as defense aviation expert Tyler Rogoway put it, nothing more than a “paper plane,” and Boeing is hoping to capitalize on that.
Unlike Lockheed’s currently only imaginary entrant into the MQ-25 drone tanker competition, Boeing’s is already logging flight hours and their prototype, developed by leveraging previous research and development from their Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) drone project that would have penetrated enemy airspace to gather intelligence or even engage targets. That project was restructured in 2016, but Boeing recognized the growing need for carrier launched drones, and began making adjustments to better suit other potential needs.
“We have already demonstrated a lot of the functionality,” said Donald Gaddis, Boeing’s MQ-25 program director. “We have done almost everything short of flying, which we will do shortly after [contract] award.”
The need for a capable drone refueler has come to the forefront of many Navy officials mind’s in recent months, as America’s military transitions away from fighting insurgencies and toward the potential for national level conflicts in the future. Many of America’s competitors, such as China and Russia, have already begun fielding anti-ship missiles that could decimate a Nimitz of Ford class aircraft carrier with operational ranges that exceed one thousand miles. America’s carrier-based aircraft, on the other hand, have an operational range of only about 500 miles, rendering the awesome firepower of America’s super carriers moot in a conflict with such a nation.
Boeing now hopes that the prototype for their UCLASS drone, with some adjustments made to better suit it for a role as a refueler, could provide them with an edge over the conceptual competition being fielded by Lockheed Martin and General Atomics – and they may be right for more reasons than just the head start.
It stands to reason that the success of a carrier based drone refueler will likely lead to a push for more carrier-capable drones suited for tasks that extend beyond refueling. The next drones to deploy from American aircraft carriers after the MQ-25 takes to the skies will undoubtedly be expected to conduct other sorts of combat-necessary operations, like surveillance or even munitions delivery on targets inside enemy controlled airspace – which just so happens to be what Boeing’s prototype was designed for in the first place. If they secure the refueler contract, a modular MQ-25 that can be equipped for refueling or other combat applications would represent a significant cost savings over designing and fielding an entirely new platform for the next carrier-based drone.
In other words, Boeing’s prototype could help them secure not only the refueler contract, but potentially even more lucrative combat platform contracts further down the road, making their gamble on devoting their own funds to the construction of the platform well worth the risk.
Because Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson has been quoted as saying he’s “putting the pedal to the floor” on fielding the MQ-25 drone program, it’s likely that we could see a decision being made in the very near future – potentially in as short as just six months. While the winner of the contract has yet to be determined, there is at least one safe bet in all of this: regardless of who wins the MQ-25 contract, it will almost certainly not be the last drone to be purpose built for carrier operations.
Watch Boeing’s MQ-25 highlight reel below:
Image courtesy of Boeing