China’s DF-21D anti-ship missile, a hypersonic platform with a range of nearly a thousand miles, could arguably be seen as a tailor made threat to American military strategy overseas. The U.S. maintains not only the largest carriers in the world, but the largest fleet of them, allowing its Navy to deploy more military might from each flight deck and accompanying battle group than could be mustered from the entire military of many nations — but the operational range of carrier based aircraft is only about 500 miles. This range limitation would force American carriers to enter deep within China’s defensive anti-ship bubble in order to conduct combat operations, placing the carriers themselves at risk from the all but indefensible hypersonic missiles zeroing in on them.
The Navy and Marine Corps have both responded by seeking novel approaches to extending the operational range of carrier based aircraft, likely with the intent of launching strikes on those anti-ship assets that would allow for a closer and more traditional approach in the event of open war with China. Plans have been enacted ranging from adding conformal fuel tanks to the fuselages of the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornets as they enter their third large scale overhaul in the Block III variant this year, to Marines establishing hasty flight lines inside contested territory to rapidly refuel and re-arm F-35s that land and take off from austere air strips (or just open fields, for that matter). Thus far, none of these plans have been able to bridge the gap between the operational range of the Navy’s Super Hornets and F-35s and the range allotted to China’s anti-ship defenses, but each can be seen as a push in the right direction.
Now, with the Navy making a formal decision in their MQ-25 Stringray program, production can begin on the program that could potentially do more to offset this capability gap than any other: carrier launched refueler drones that can meet Navy fighters in contested airspace to extend their range.
Boeing secured the MQ-25 contract despite stiff competition from Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, and with good reason. The platform Boeing proposed was already developed in large part for the UCLASS program, which aimed to field armed, stealthy drones in Navy environments. Once the Navy shifted focus to extended aerial operations, Boeing needed only to refit their existing platform, giving them a significant leg up on the “paper planes” (aircraft with no operational prototypes) being pitched by the competition.