The U.S. Navy’s new carrier-based refueling drone, the Boeing produced MQ-25 Stingray, took its first test flight on Thursday, potentially ushering in a new era of naval combat operations for the United States. Although not intended to serve as an armed aircraft, the carrier-launched autonomous refueler could help the U.S. Navy offset the tactical advantage presented by China’s long-range, hypersonic anti-ship missiles that have all but neutered America’s force projection capabilities near their shores.
“Seeing MQ-25 in the sky is a testament to our Boeing and Navy team working the technology, systems and processes that are helping get MQ-25 to the carrier,” MQ-25 Program Director Dave Bujold said in the release. “This aircraft and its flight test program ensures we’re delivering the MQ-25 to the carrier fleet with the safety, reliability and capability the U.S. Navy needs to conduct its vital mission.”
While the Navy was originally pursuing a low-observability UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) for operational use aboard American carriers, the decision was made to change directions with the program over a year ago. Rather than delivering munitions, the focus for the Navy’s new drone program shifted to in-flight refueling of fighters like the F-35C and F/A-18 Super Hornets operating aboard America’s Nimitz and Ford class carriers. This change, along with a number of new programs in development for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, are all aimed at closing the gap between China’s anti-ship capabilities and America’s sea-based arsenals.
China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles are said to have an operational range of nearly 1,000 miles, or just about double the combat range of most carrier-based fighters. That means the U.S. would have to sail its carriers well into range of China’s carrier-killing missiles in order to launch sorties of fighters against Chinese forces. The Navy hopes to extend the range of those fighters, however, through a combination of programs, including new fuel storage on the forthcoming Block III Super Hornets to extend their range, “hot loading” F-35s on hastily assembled austere runways inside China’s anti-ship bubble, and of course, using the forthcoming fleet of 72 MQ-25 Refueling drones to meet aircraft in the skies for mid-air refueling.
While unmanned aircraft have already proven their value in American combat operations, the MQ-25 promises to be the first such aircraft to join the Navy’s air wing. Thus far, Boeing has been awarded an $805 million contract for the design and development process, with something more to the tune of $13 billion expected to fund MQ-25 production. The MQ-25 is slated to reach IOC, or initial operational capability, sometime in 2024.