The Navy exercised contract options with Boeing worth $84.7 million to buy three MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial refueling tankers as part of a modification to a previously awarded contract.
The three MQ-25s covered by the contract options are to be completed by August 2024, according to the contract announcement released by the Pentagon late Thursday.
For more than a decade, the Navy has conducted an on-again, off-again development process to build what will be the Navy’s first unmanned carrier-based tankers. In 2018, Boeing beat Lockheed Martin and General Atomics to land the $805 million contract to build the first four MQ-25As.
The Navy anticipates integrating MQ-25 aircraft into the carrier air wing for initial operational capability by 2024, according to a Navy’s fact sheet about the program.
The Navy’s desire for an unmanned aerial refueling tanker is born out of necessity. Currently, between 20 and 30 percent of a carrier-based air wing’s Super Hornet fleet is dedicated to aerial refueling operations. Introducing the MQ-25A Stingray will free those Super Hornets for strike missions. The MQ-25A is expected to deliver up to 15,000 pounds of fuel at 500 nautical miles.
In September, Boeing conducted the first flight of its unmanned aerial refueling test aircraft the T1. Boeing tested both the T1’s handling and the Navy’s ability to fast-track the long-stalled program.
Boeing first unveiled photos of the T1 prototype months before winning the contract award. Having the T1 available enabled the Navy and Boeing to perform tests much earlier in the development process than would be typical for a new build.
The type of testing performed in September, a year after the contract award, usually doesn’t start until the first engineering development models (EDM) are built. With the MQ-25 program, the first EDM airframes are expected to be ready for testing by the end of 2021, according to the Navy.
Boeing previously announced plans to hoist the T1 onto an aircraft carrier and conduct deck handling tests this year. Boeing plans to shift to using the first EDM airframes for testing in 2021. The first carrier-based tests and sea trials are expected to occur in 2022 and 2023, the Navy previously stated.
Ben Werner is a staff writer for USNI News. He has worked as a freelance writer in Busan, South Korea, and as a staff writer covering education and publicly traded companies for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore Business Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from New York University.