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.

Boeing’s prototype MQ-25 drone. (Courtesy of Boeing)

The concept behind the MQ-25 is simple: by deploying refueler drones to meet returning fighters within contested territory, Super Hornets and Joint Strike Fighters may potentially be able to depart from carriers outside the thousand mile anti-ship bubble, engage targets, then meet refuelers along their route home to give them enough supplemental fuel to get them back to the carriers without having to place them at risk of shore-based defenses. The MQ-25 could potentially deliver up to 15,000 pounds of fuel to an aircraft 500 miles from a carrier. Once all anti-ship assets have been neutralized, the carriers can close with the shoreline and begin conducting more traditional combat flight operations.

Because Boeing’s drone refueler was originally intended for combat operations inside contested airspace, it was built to offer a small radar signature, potentially improving its chances at successfully refueling American aircraft even when being hunted by enemy radar.

Hypersonic anti-ship missiles are a game changer -- here are some of the things the US is doing to counter them

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The contract, worth a reported $805 million, is expected to cover all costs through development and deployment, including a rapid integration into the Navy’s flight systems, with the first MQ-25s expected to enter service in 2024. At that point, the Navy intends to put in an order for 72 of the drones, to the tune of about $13 billion. Futuristic as that date may sound, it means Boeing has only six years to find a way to fully implement their drone into the Navy’s catalog of carrier-based aircraft, with the contract stipulating that they should begin flight testing in 2021 — a mere three years away. This expedited timeline suggests that it may indeed have been Boeing’s operational prototype that secured this contract; as they offered what likely appeared to be the fastest turnaround from contract award to deployable system.

Further, because the Boeing MQ-25 Stingray was originally developed to be an armed combatant, the Navy may be positioning themselves for a budget-buy of different iterations of the same drone. Boeing could feasibly fit munitions on the same platform and sell them to the Navy as a combat-ready drone once they’ve had the opportunity to fully develop the platform for carrier operations as a refueler. To the Navy, that would mean a streamlined supply chain and reduced expenditures for research and development when they almost certainly look to begin fielding armed drones in the future.

With that in mind, the awarding of the MQ-25 contract last week may be a significant moment in Naval history: as it looks to both offset the capability gap presented by emerging technologies like hypersonics, and has the potential to become America’s first carrier-based combat drone in the years to come.