Throughout the past 16 years of combat operations, drones have played a significant role in the American military strategy employed in multiple theaters around the world. From the early days of unarmed surveillance drones to the modern MQ-9 Reaper, the role of drones in warfare has grown to envelope an ever-increasing segment of aerial operations, and now the Navy intends to add to the long list of drone-capable missions with the MQ-25 program; a carrier capable refueling drone tanker.
The Navy hopes to field a drone capable of extending operations for carrier based Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets, Boeing EA-18G Growlers, and Lockheed Martin F-35C fighters, and a number of industry heavyweights have their eye on the contract. General Atomics, who built the original MQ-1 Predators as well as the more advanced MQ-9 Reapers, is expected to field an entry, as are Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The deadline for submissions is January 3rd of next year, but some details, and images, have already begun making their way to the public.
In order to suit the needs of the Navy, the drone tanker must be capable of utilizing existing carrier catapult launch and recovery systems, be able to maintain long duration autonomous flight operations, and navigate the complex and dangerous aerial refueling operations required to keep America’s manned combat aircraft airborne.
Although General Atomics took the early public relations lead by releasing concept art of their entry, which appears to be based on their previous Sea Avenger platform, not much has been released regarding the submissions of each of these contenders thus far.
Earlier this week, however, Boeing released the first image of their own submission: the MQ-25 Stingray.
“Boeing has been delivering carrier aircraft to the Navy for almost 90 years,” said Don ‘BD’ Gaddis, a retired admiral who leads the refueling system program for Boeing’s Phantom Works technology organization in a press release. “Our expertise gives us confidence in our approach. We will be ready for flight testing when the engineering and manufacturing development contract is awarded.”
Revealed and ready! #BoeingMQ25 #UAS future @USNavy tanker will extend the range of combat aircraft from the flight deck to the fight!
RELEASE: https://t.co/tkDt0R84zB #MQ25 #PhantomWorks pic.twitter.com/gSgS8xmIRR
— Boeing Defense (@BoeingDefense) December 19, 2017
Although not a requirement for the contract, based on the image, it would appear Boeing’s submission may employ some form of stealth or low observability design, likely intended to ensure the aircraft maintains a minimal radar signature while conducing refueling operations in contested airspace. Boeing isn’t letting the cat out of the bag however, offering little more than the image and a basic description of the Navy’s requirements in their release. Also clearly apparent in the image is a rather robust set of landing gear, as compared to drones designed for land-based take off and landings. The MQ-25 will undoubtedly need a serious set of wheels to manage rough carrier landings, particularly with heavy-fuel payloads.
With so little known about the MQ-25 submissions the Navy expects to field next month, there remains a great deal of room for extrapolation. While General Dynamics appears to have repurposed early plans for the Avenger platform (Predator C), it would appear Boeing is going with a new airframe all together. Nonetheless, it’s likely that both entrants, as well as whatever will be submitted by Lockheed, will offer some design versatility, such as the ability to serve as a multi-sensor platform, a communications node between multiple sea-based and airborne assets, or even the ability to carry armaments. The Navy anticipates continued expansion into drone-based combat operations, meaning the winner of the MQ-25 contract may well secure a foothold into future applications, particularly if their platform can be modified for an inexpensive conversion into whatever happens to be on Uncle Sam’s Christmas list next year.
The U.S. Navy intends to purchase only four autonomous tankers upon awarding the contract as proof of concept prototypes. If the drones prove capable, the Navy expects to field a fleet of 72 of these drone-refuelers within the coming years.
Image courtesy of Boeing