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U.S. Navy's Unmanned Tanker Makes First Test Flight

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Image courtesy Boeing

By The Maritime Executive 09-20-2019 07:22:31

On Thursday, the U.S. Navy's future unmanned aerial refueling tanker passed its first test flight, marking a new milestone for carrier-based aviation. The Boeing-owned MQ-25 test unit - known as T1 - carried out an autonomous takeoff from MidAmerica Airport in Illinois for a two-hour flight. 

The T1 is a rapid-development prototype aimed at giving the procurement team a head start. Boeing says that it will have hundreds of hours of flight time with T1 before it begins building the first four pre-production units in the MQ-25 series. 

Boeing holds an $800 million contract for the four prototypes, which could grow to a multi-billion-dollar, 72-plane order if the program is successful. The first units are expected to enter service in the mid-2020s.

“Today’s flight is an exciting and significant milestone for our program and the Navy,” said program manager Capt. Chad Reed. “The flight of this test asset two years before our first MQ-25 arrives represents the first big step in a series of early learning opportunities that are helping us progress toward delivery of a game-changing capability for the carrier air wing."

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. MQ-25 is intended to extend the range of airstrike forces and free up F/A-18 Hornets from in-flight refueling duty, which consumes a large portion of available F/A-18 flight hours. 

In March, Boeing announced plans for an unmanned fighter designed to accompany and provide surveillance for manned aircraft. This "Airpower Teaming System" would provide intelligence and targeting information for conventional strike fighters.