Sending out the MQ-25A Stingrays — which haven’t yet been manufactured — with aircraft sorties could relieve a major burden currently carried by Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets. As many as 25 to 30 percent of all Super Hornets taking off from the Navy’s carriers are routinely sent out on refueling missions, USNI notes. As Lockheed Martin struggles to ramp up production of F-35C aircraft, freeing up more Super Hornets would bolster the service’s capacity to marshal planes from carriers.
The fuel-supplying drones would extend the range of planes launching from the carriers, Business Insider noted, which could allow carrier wing groups to thwart far-off threats that might otherwise menace US ships. In particular, increased flying ranges could help take out Chinese Dong Feng-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM). The aircraft will also carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance duties, Navy officials said last year.
It’s worth noting that Pyongyang’s most recent June 8 test firing featured ASBMs comparable to Russian Kalibr versatile anti-ship missiles, military analysts said.
Aerospace firms Lockheed, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and done-maker General Atomics will likely compete when the government releases a request for proposals (RFP) to fill the capabilities gap. The RFP won’t go out until later in 2017, USNI said. And even once an RFP goes out, the General Services Administration (GSA) agency will have to work with the Pentagon to choose a contract winner. Only from there could the Stingray be built. But the fiscal year 2018 budget allocates more than $220 million to research and develop the UAV.
Calls for expediting the MQ-25A’s timeline date back to November 2016.
“We need to get the [MQ-25A] to the fleet as quick as we can so we can start learning about that manned-unmanned teaming and integrate that into the air wing,” Naval air systems commander Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker said, according to a RealClearDefense report.
Apart from the Stingray, “the Navy has not outlined its next steps for unmanned carrier aviation beyond the limited goals for the MQ-25A,” USNI reported.