Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Chicago, IL, United States (4E) – The Boeing Company, the second largest defense contractor in the world, has received a $805 million contract from the U.S. Navy to build the first four MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial tanker drones.
The entire Stingray program will eventually see Boeing manufacture 72 Stingrays at a cost of some $13 billion. The contract awards is a major win for Boeing, which has seen other lucrative contracts for new combat aircraft go to its rival, Lockheed Martin, which is the world’s largest defense contractor.
The $805 million contract involves the design, development, fabrication, test and delivery of four Stingray aircraft. The Navy saw the Stingrays’s predecessor, the UCLASS, as a strike and surveillance drone. This concept was cancelled in 2016 in favor of the Stingray transforming into a long-distance robot aerial tanker for the Navy’s Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighters and Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets.
Prototypes of the carrier-launched refueling drone Stingray flew in 2017 and are designed to extend the combat range of carrier-borne combat aircraft such as the F-35C and the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets.
The MQ-25’s mission is “recovery tanking” in which it refuels planes flying in a fixed orbit around an aircraft carrier. This method will enable Navy combat jets such as F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F-35Cs to fly missions with enough fuel to return to their mother carriers.
The MQ-25 robot tanker will extend the range of carrier strike jets and allow Navy carriers to operate well outside the effective distance of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles such as the land-launched DF-21D, which has a range of some 1,400 km.
The Navy said the MQ-25 will provide a robust organic refueling capability that will extend the range of a carrier air wing. It plans to have the final MQ-25 design by 2018 and receive its first operational Stingrays by 2021.
“I think we’ll look back on this day and recognize it as a pretty historic event,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson.
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