Boeing will design and manufacture the MQ-25 Stingray naval tanker drone

US Navy Acquisition Director James Geurtz announced that the study and completion of the MQ-25 Stingray onboard refueling drone had been awarded to Boeingthis August 30, 2018. The Seattle aircraft manufacturer will therefore be notified of a contract worth $805 million for the study and delivery of 4 prototypes, the final contract for 72 aircraft being valued at $13 billion . The Stingray is expected to begin entering service in 2024.

This is excellent news for Boeing, which went through a lean period for the benefit of Lockheed, and only maintained its fighter activity thanks to orders for Super Hornets and Growlers from the Navy, and export contracts. 

The Boeing demonstrator is remarkably classic in its design, with an architecture with straight wings and tailplanes, and not in the shape of a flying wing like most of the UCAVs currently presented. This configuration is not ideal in terms of stealth, even if an effort has been made to align the horizontal planes.

It is, in fact, linked to the very function of the Stingray, which is to accompany the aircraft of the embarked air group to be able to refuel them as close as possible to the action zone. Unlike an attack UCAV, the Stingray will therefore not need to approach particularly close to enemy detection systems, and its passive stealth therefore does not need to be as advanced as for the latter. In addition, a straight wing has very significant aerodynamic advantages at low and medium subsonic speeds, and is therefore very suitable for deployment from aircraft carriers, and for carrying heavy fuel loads.

The urgent need for a refueling solution for its air group also indicates a profound change in the conditions of employment of the aircraft carrier today. Where the ship operated 250/300 km from the coast 15 years ago, the extension of the ranges of anti-ship missiles now forces it to move further away, further reducing the capabilities of its onboard aviation which, traditionally, is not designed to have a particularly high range of action. Thus, the Super-Hornet like the Lightning II have a range of less than 1000 km under load, and therefore a very reduced autonomy in an area if the vessel is already 500 km from the coast.

This is also one of the major limitations of springboard aircraft carriers, their planes consuming a lot of fuel on takeoff and not being able to take off fully loaded, and therefore having an even more limited range of action. In addition, they cannot implement a refueling solution, even by drone.

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