On Monday, Senator Tammy Duckworth posted two pictures to Twitter of Boeing’s new MQ-25 Stingray drone, or rather, Boeing’s first test platform for what is to become the operational MQ-25. While the United States operates a wide variety of unmanned aerial vehicles, the MQ-25 Stingray program promises to do something no other drone has ever done before: Extend the fuel range of America’s carrier based fighters.
“Last week I visited @MAAirport, where I met with local officials and viewed the Navy’s new MQ-25 unmanned aircraft system,” Duckworth wrote on Twitter in addition to posting the pictures. “MidAmerica Airport is an important driver of our state’s economy, and I’ll keep working to make sure it has the federal support it needs.”
Last week I visited @MAAirport, where I met with local officials and viewed the Navy’s new MQ-25 unmanned aircraft system. MidAmerica Airport is an important driver of our state's economy, and I’ll keep working to make sure it has the federal support it needs pic.twitter.com/Gp0JOBiNW9
— Tammy Duckworth (@SenDuckworth) July 20, 2020
Senator Duckworth is a U.S. Army veteran who lost both her legs in Iraq in 2004. She is now a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
What is the MQ-25 Stingray?
This new drone has a long and storied history, from its roots in a program aimed at developing low-observable UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) to the Navy’s recent decision to emphasize extending the fuel range of fighters, rather than adding another armed drone to America’s stable.
In 2018, Boeing threw their hat in the ring to secure the U.S. Navy’s new drone refueler contract, and it seems likely that Boeing managed to beat out the competition like Lockheed Martin in large part because their design was considered more mature than its competition. Whereas Lockheed submitted a paper proposal for the MQ-25 Stingray contract, Boeing instead offered up a re-tooled version of their Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) drone that they had already been working on.
“We have already demonstrated a lot of the functionality,” said Donald Gaddis, Boeing’s MQ-25 program director. “We have done almost everything short of flying, which we will do shortly after [contract] award.”
The UCLASS was intended for carrier-duty, but instead of serving as a refueler, it was originally intended to serve as an offensive platform itself, deploying from carriers, engaging ground targets in contested airspace, and returning once again. However, the development of China’s arsenal of hypersonic anti-ship missiles forced the Navy to reconsider their goals. Instead of needing a carrier-based UCAV, the Navy realized what they really needed was a way to extend the fuel range of their existing F-35C Joint Strike Fighters and F/A-18 Super Hornets.
Why is a carrier-based refueler so important?
If you find yourself wondering why a drone refueler could be so important to America’s defense apparatus, the answer really boils down to China. The United States and China have found themselves in a staring match throughout much of the Pacific, and particularly in a large waterway known as the South China Sea. A number of nations, many of whom have cooperative ties with the United States, have legal claims over large swaths of this heavily trafficked waterway, but China has continued to use it’s large naval presence (including its Coast Guard and even maritime militias) to push smaller nations out of their own territorial waters.
China has claimed sovereignty over the entirety of the South China Sea, and despite having its claims not only rejected by the international community but even dismissed in international courts, Xi Jinping has opted to leverage China’s rapidly growing Navy to enforce their claims anyway. This is of particular import not only to the nations China is pushing out, but to the global economy. The South China Sea sees around a third of all global commerce sail across its surface.
In order to demonstrate the international community’s unwillingness to accept China’s illegal claims over the waterway, the U.S. Navy and others have begun conducting FONOPs, or Freedom of Navigation Operations, through portions of the South China Sea that are subject to China’s illegal claims. However, if a fight were ever to actually break out in the Pacific, the United States would actually find itself as a serious disadvantage.
China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles move at speeds that are too fast to intercept and have an operational range of around 1,000 miles. The fighters America uses for carrier operations, however, have a combat radius of only about 500 miles–meaning the United States could not sail carriers close enough to Chinese shores to bring the fight to them, and an attempt to do so could give China a real opportunity to sink one of America’s massive super carriers.
With thousands of troops and as many as 80 aircraft on board, as well as only 11 super carriers in existence, you can see how sinking just one of these huge vessels would mean a huge reduction in America’s force projection capabilities. Sailing a carrier into striking distance is just too big a risk to abide, so instead, the Navy is looking for ways to extend the reach of its aircraft, allowing sorties to launch from outside the range of China’s missiles and still engage targets on their shoreline.
What’s next for the MQ-25 Stingray drone?
Boeing hopes to get this first operational test drone, dubbed T1, onto the deck of a carrier later this year to begin limited testing, and they have further plans to complete three more test beds by 2024.
Once operational, these drones will be able to operate autonomously off the decks of America’s Nimitz and Ford class carriers to meet returning fighters to refuel them and extend their range. However, the MQ-25 Stingray’s UCAV roots may ultimately come back into the picture a few years down the line.
Because the MQ-25 is effectively a platform built for combat engagements that’s been modified to carry an external fuel tank for refueling, it stands to reason this handy drone could find other uses on a 21st Century battlefield. It’s likely that we’ll see the MQ-25 serve in a number of roles from the deck of America’s flat tops: from reconnaissance and surveillance to air strikes on ground targets. Having a single platform that’s capable of multiple mission sets would be advantageous from a strategic standpoint, and of course, easier on Uncle Sam’s wallet.