The US Navy is making a nearly billion-dollar bet on drones that can make aircraft carriers more lethal

Eric Shindelbower/BoeingBoeing’s MQ-25 unmanned aerial refuelling tanker being tested at Boeing’s St. Louis site.
  • The Navy has awarded a contract for the development of an unmanned refuelling aircraft.
  • The service wants better refuelling capability to take pressure off air crews and extend the range of carrier air wings.
  • Longer range is a particularly important asset in light of the “carrier-killer” missiles being developed by rivals like China.

The US Navy awarded Boeing an $US805 million contract to develop refuelling drones in what the service’s top officer called a “historic” step toward making the fleet’s carriers more effective and more deadly.

The contract provides for the design, development, testing, delivery, and support of four MQ-25A unmanned aerial refuelling vehicles. It includes integration into the carrier air wing with initial operational capability by 2024.

It is a fixed-price contract, meaning the Navy is not on the hook for costs beyond the $US805.3 million award. Boeing will reportedly get $US79 million of the total award to start.

The Navy expects the program to yield 72 aircraft with a total cost of about $US13 billion, James Geurts, the service’s assistant secretary for research, development, and acquisition, told Defence News.

Geurts also called the MQ-25A “a hallmark acquisition program.”

“This is an historic day,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in a release.

Navy Boeing MQ-25 refuelling drone tankerUS Navy/BoeingBoeing conducts an MQ-25 deck-handling demonstration at its facility in St. Louis, Missouri, January 29, 2018.

The Navy has been working on a drone that can operate on carriers for some time. The unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike program was scrapped in 2016 and reoriented toward developing an unmanned tanker.

According to the Navy, the MQ-25A will bolster the carrier air wing’s performance and efficiency while extending their operating range and tanking capability.

Richardson told Defence News that the new drone will free up the Super Hornet aircraft currently dedicated to providing tanker support to other aircraft.

“We will look back on this day and recognise that this event represents a dramatic shift in the way we define warfighting requirements, work with industry, integrate unmanned and manned aircraft, and improve the lethality of the airwing – all at relevant speed,” Richardson said in the release. “But we have a lot more to do. It’s not the time to take our foot off the gas. Let’s keep charging.”

F-18 Super HornetMass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan U. Kledzik/US NavyAn F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Boeing has a long history of involvement in naval aviation, including manufacture of the Hornet and Super Hornet carrier aircraft, and in tanker operations.

This award is seen as a much-needed victory, however, as the company has been on the outside looking in for major aviation programs in recent years, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Boeing was involved in the UCLASS program, and the design it offered for the refuelling drone was influenced by that previous project. The company has already built a prototype of the MQ-25A and has said a first flight may take place not long after the contract was awarded.

“The fact that we’re already preparing for first flight is thanks to an outstanding team who understands the Navy and their need to have this important asset on carrier decks around the world,” Leanne Caret, head of Boeing’s defence, space and security division, said in a company release.

Boeing said the Navy believes the MQ-25A will extend the range of the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the EA-18G Growler, both of which are Boeing aircraft, as well as the F-35C, which is the Navy’s variant of the Lockheed Martin-made joint strike fighter.

The crews of the Navy’s Super Hornets are currently tasked with both refuelling and fighter operations, rising concerns about wear and tear and stoking interest in unmanned replacements.

The Super Hornets and the F-35Cs that make up carrier air wings also have shorter ranges than the aircraft they replaced – a particular hindrance in light of the “carrier-killer” missiles that both Russia and China have developed.

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