US aerospace giant Boeing was awarded a contract on Thursday to develop a revolutionary unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for the US Navy. Boeing received a contract worth $805 million to build four MQ-25A Stingray drones, which feature the use of stealth technology.
The MQ-25A drone will be deployed on US Navy aircraft carriers and will have a primary mission of aerial refuelling of fighters like the Super Hornet, F-35C and F-35B (operated by the US Marine Corps). The first MQ-25A is expected to enter service in 2024. The total US Navy requirement is for 72 such drones, with a total cost of around $13 billion.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson declared the contract announcement day was “historic day” for the US Navy, noting that the MQ-25A represented a “dramatic shift” in how war-fighting requirements were defined, given the integration of both manned fighters and UAVs.
Boeing competed with General Atomics and Lockheed Martin for the MQ-25A contract. The US Navy’s carrier-based drone requirement has had a chequered history though it started nearly two decades ago. The US Navy’s initial plan to have a drone capable of strike, reconnaissance and aerial refuelling was modified in 2016 to focus on the aerial refuelling role.
The MQ-25A drone is being designed to carry up to 7 tonnes of fuel to a distance of 500 miles (approximately 800km) from an aircraft carrier. While the MQ-25A’s fuel capacity is less than 1/10 of that offered by larger land-based aerial refuelling systems like Boeing’s own KC-46, the drone’s ability to operate from aircraft carriers, stealthy design and the virtue of being unmanned give it significant advantages.