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Video: Unmanned Aerial Refueling Extends Carriers' Reach

stingray refueling
Courtesy USN

Published Jun 7, 2021 10:45 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a key development for the future of carrier operations and naval strategy, U.S. Naval Air Systems Command announced Monday that it has completed the first ever aerial refueling operation between an unmanned tanker and a manned aircraft. The successful test demonstrated that Boeing's MQ-25 Stingray prototype unmanned tanker can refuel an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter with a standard probe-and-drogue system. 

This relatively uneventful trial has major implications for the future combat utility of carriers and their air wings: unmanned tankers can extend the over-the-horizon reach of the Navy's fighters from the current 450 nm out to more than 700 nm, giving the carrier far greater standoff distance for a strike. In an era of ever-more-sophisticated anti-ship missile threats, it is increasingly important for combatant commanders to keep giant supercarriers safe. With assistance from unmanned tankers, a manned fighter squadron can launch further away from the target.

According to the Navy, the test evolution proceeded in exactly the manner expected. The manned fighter pulled up behind the drone tanker, evaluated its wake, tracked the refueling drogue, plugged in and took on a supply of fuel - much like it would if it were being refueled by another F/A-18. 

"This is our mission, an unmanned aircraft that frees our strike fighters from the tanker role, and provides the Carrier Air Wing with greater range, flexibility and capability," said Capt. Chad Reed, program manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program office. "Seeing the MQ-25 fulfilling its primary tasking today, fueling an F/A-18, is a significant and exciting moment for the Navy and shows concrete progress toward realizing MQ-25’s capabilities for the fleet."

Based on the test flight, Reed's team will make software adjustments to improve guidance and control. Testing with the prototype will continue over the next few months, building up to deck handling demonstrations aboard an aircraft carrier later this year.

The MQ-25 will be the world’s first operational, carrier-based unmanned aircraft. It is an unarmed design, and it is intended to perform only aerial refueling and surveillance functions. It will free up combat-capable F/A-18 Hornets from in-flight refueling duty, multiplying the carrier's effective fighting force. 

The MQ-25 program follows on the heels of the Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) autonomous fighter initiative, which was scuttled in 2016 amidst controversy over shifting requirements. The concept has not disappeared: Boeing's Australian division is now working on an unmanned, "loyal wingman" fighter which will fly alongside manned combat aircraft.