The US Navy awarded Boeing on Thursday an $850 million contract to design and build the MQ-25A Stingray, the Navy’s first carrier-based unmanned refueling aircraft.
The plan is to have four MQ-25A unmanned refueling aircraft integrated into the carrier air wing and initially operationally capable by 2024, according to the Navy’s statement announcing the contract’s award.
Aerial refueling is seen as a critical military capability, allowing fighter jets and strike aircraft to fly for extended distances, linger longer over battlefields and strike longer-range targets.
The US military currently uses manned aircraft to perform in-flight refueling, such as the Air Force’s KC-135 Stratotanker. However, such aircraft are much too large to be deployed aboard an aircraft carrier and require a crew of three to operate.
“When operational, MQ-25A will improve the performance, efficiency, and safety of the carrier air wing and provide longer range and greater persistence tanking capability to execute missions that otherwise could not be performed,” the Navy said in its statement.
The chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, said the award constituted “a historic day,” pointing to the speed with which the contract was finalized.
“We will look back on this day and recognize 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 air wing – all at relevant speed,” Richardson said, adding, “But we have a lot more to do. It’s not the time to take our foot off the gas. Let’s keep charging.”
Multiple defense contractors had vied for the contract to design and manufacture the new aircraft.
Boeing also produces the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet jet, the backbone of the Navy’s fleet of carrier-based fighter aircraft.