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.