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January 22, 2018
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Boeing’s Unmanned Stealth Refueller

By Jimmy Bhatia Published: January 2018
 

Boeing MQ-25
Boeing Phantom Works’ offering for the US Navy MQ-25 UCAAS Programme

Boeing never stops to keep springing surprises especially when it comes to its prized possession, ‘Boeing Phantom Works’. In response to a US Navy requirement of a carrier-based unmanned aerial system (UAS) that can refuel jet fighters in midair, Boeing recently offered a first glimpse of a large, Stingray shaped unmanned aircraft December 19, that it hopes would find favour with the US Navy amidst stiff competition from rivals for the latter’s MQ-25 Stingray ‘Unmanned Carrier Aviation Air System’ (UCAAS) programme.

Unmanned aircraft have been a vital component of the US armed forces’ inventories for years, but an unmanned in-flight refueller – apart from signifying marked advancement in technology – would not only mark a significant advancement in technology – it would also become another indicator as to how the US and other advanced militaries round the world would fight their future wars.

sea_avenger1
General Atomics’ Sea avenger: A carrier-based derivative of its jet-powered Predator C Avenger

Although Boeing hasn’t released details about its entry for the MQ-25 competition, the released image shows a bulky central fuselage with a large undercarriage and a prominent dorsal jet-engine air intake on top of the front fuselage. It seems to resemble Northrop Grumman’s X-47B but with a much thicker cross-section to provide space for refueling tanks. Needless to say that Boeing’s candidate from its Phantom Works would be capable of catapult-launch (both Steam and EMALS) and land using the arrestor wire recovery systems and that it would certainly have folding wings for carrier operation/storage.

Formerly known as the ‘Carrier-Based Aerial Refuelling System (CBARS), the MQ-25 is the successor to the US Navy’s ‘Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike’ (UCLASS) programme that had investigated the potential for a carrier-borne unmanned reconnaissance and strike aircraft. However, Pentagon, in a change of tack in 2016, decided to postpone the full combat design to a later date and turn the UAV into a tanker with only occasional surveillance duties.

Lockheed-Martin-Sea-Ghost
Lockheed Martin’s Sea Ghost, a flying-wing design that utilises a number of F-35 technologies

The main purpose of MQ-25 programme is to extend ranges of carrier-borne aircraft by providing in-flight refuelling capability that isn’t dependent on land-based Flight Refueller Aircraft (FRAs). The Pentagon chose this route to address the US Navy’s expected fighter shortfall by diverting funds to buy additional F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and accelerate purchases and development of the F-35C, as well as free a large portion of the existing Super Hornet fleet for its primary strike role that is presently engaged in the tanker role. In addition, MQ-25 could also be used for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions as its secondary role.

Testifying before a Senate defence subcommittee last year, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus had said the MQ-25 will replace Boeing F/A-18E/Fs Super Hornets in the aerial tanker role, freeing the multi-role fighter to perform its strike mission. The Stingray “will also have the range and payload capacity associated with high-endurance unmanned aircraft to be able to provide around-the-clock, sea-based ISR support to the Carrier Strike Group and the Joint Forces Commander, when required.”

The MQ-25 is expected to extend the Super Hornet’s present 450 nm (830 km) unrefuelled combat radius to beyond 700 nm (1,300 km). The US Navy’s goal for MQ-25 is to be able to deliver 6,800 kg of fuel total to 4 to 6 airplanes at a range of 500 nm from the launch carrier. Notably, there is a growing concern with threats to aircraft carriers. Increasing the strike ranges of their warplanes would help them to keep out of harm’s way.

The original UClass competitors were expected to return with proposals for the Stingray acquisition with bids opening date slated to be January 3, 2018. Apart from Boeing, Lockheed Martin with its ‘Sea Ghost’ flying-wing concept based on RQ-170 Sentinel and General Atomics’ Sea Avenger – a carrier-based derivative of its jet-powered Predator C Avenger are in the fray.

130514-N-FU443-025
The already carrier- tested X-47B of Northrop Grumman which has now pulled out from the MQ-25 programme

Northrop Grumman – a pioneer for carrier-based unmanned aerial systems – which had proposed advancements of its already tested X-47B – withdrew from the competition in a surprise move, October last year.

“Boeing has been delivering carrier aircraft to the (US) Navy for almost 90 years”, said Don BD Gaddis, leader of the refueling system programme for Boeing Phantom Works technology organisation. “Our expertise gives us confidence in our approach. We will be ready for flight testing when the engineering and manufacturing development contract is awarded.”

But, even though Northrop Grumman has withdrawn from the MQ-25 contest, it would be nothing but a tough competition.

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