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Drone planes: military push continues to Boeing

US Navy carries on with UAS air refuellers: USD 85 million

An internet note by the US Department of Defense reports that the US Navy (USN) has awarded Boeing a contract worth $ 84.7 million to build three more units of the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned refuelling aircraft..

The new aircraft that will be used for the ongoing operational testing program must be completed by August 2024 in order to be included in the extensive program already in place to evaluate the actual capabilities and limitations of the new system, when operated from an aircraft carrier. With this order, which like others of the US defense has undergone -AVIONEWS notes- an acceleration aimed at supporting the finances of the Seattle company, in this moment of crisis, there will become seven Stingray aircraft that Boeing is producing in the MQ-25A program.

The current contract was an option on the original agreement for four units, worth USD 805m, awarded to Boeing in August 2018. The Boeing MQ-25 Stingray is a Remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) developed on an operational need by the US Navy for in-flight refuelling tasks in aircraft carrier operations. The intention is to use the drone on the aircraft carriers of the fleet for the in-flight refuelling of combat airplanes.

Commenting on the contract Dave Bujold, director of Boeing's MQ-25 program said "This order allows Boeing to continue manufacturing the first MQ-25 aircraft and aligns itself with test and training plans with the new Navy vehicle for introduction of the fleet".

Boeing has control of the first unit of MQ-25A, called T1 (Test aircraft 1 Ed notice) which flew for the first time in September 2019 and has 30 flight hours. The US Navy has been studying various versions of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to be used by aircraft carriers since the early 2000s. Since 2016, the Navy, including that the time to develop an unmanned attack platform for launching from an aircraft carrier was not ripe yet, has changed its requirement, focusing on a system with primary tanker capabilities, called C-Bars (Carrier-Based Aerial-Refuelling System), with secondary ISR and attack capabilities.

In 2017, in fact, the main need of the US Navy was to expand the range of action of the manned aircraft present in the CAW (Carrier Air Wing) of the aircraft carriers, freeing the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet from the tasks of in-flight refuelling (buddy-buddy) which represent on average 25% of their sorties during an operational cruise. Huge savings in a mission -AVIONEWS writes- where space savings are substantial.

Flight testing on the MQ-25A is currently stopped because Boeing is installing a refuelling point under the left wing of the UAV T1. The company is conducting tests on its aircraft in order to collect data more quickly and prepare the Stingray to pass through the IPR (Initial Production Rate) production phase. Boeing plans to start supplying units of the Stingray in the development and IPR versions (therefore with reduced capacity compared to the final operational version Editor's note) to the USN in 2021.

As a US Navy requirement, the Stingray must have a range of 500 miles (over 900 km) and be able to transfer approximately 14,000 pounds (almost 800 kg of fuel) to attack aircraft.

AVIONEWS has already published another article on the flight refuelling strategy of the USAF which integrates with the programs of the US Navy (see news).

In summary, after a time period in which the two armed forces plan to use civilian aircraft to integrate their attack force projection capabilities, the long-term solution seems to be unmanned aircraft. A first step towards a drone-based fleet.

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AVIONEWS - World Aeronautical Press Agency