How Boeing's MQ-25 Stingray Is Going to Get Even Better

How Boeing's MQ-25 Stingray Is Going to Get Even Better

Engineering a drone to land on a carrier involves new innovations the Navy has now been working on for years.


It’s a first-of-its-kind carrier-launched drone potentially able to double the range at which fighter jets can project power and attack enemy targets from the ocean, an evolving platform expected to deploy from aircraft carriers within just the next few years… the MQ-25 Stingray aerial refueler.

The MQ-25, which is expected to be just the first in a growing fleet of carrier-launched drones to emerge in coming years, is now being upgraded with new applications of command and control technology, according to a Pentagon statement announcing a development deal with Boeing, the MQ-25 maker.


The deal is a contract modification providing “for the integration of a ground control station that provides command and control capability in support of the MQ-25 air vehicle for the Navy,” the Pentagon announcement states.

Engineering a drone to land on a carrier involves new innovations the Navy has now been working on for years. Without the direction of a human pilot to navigate the glide slope descent onto a carrier deck for landing, advanced algorithms had to be created to help the unmanned platform make accommodations or adjustments for rough seas, high wind conditions, or otherwise challenged carrier landing circumstances. There is also of course a pressing need for command and control technologies, a reason perhaps for the Navy’s contract modification.

Technologies are evolving quickly regarding increased autonomy and command and control for unmanned systems, a development likely to provide part of the rationale for why the Navy is building new drone-operation centers aboard carriers to assist with mission scope, landing, and navigation carrier-operated unmanned systems.

The existence of the MQ-25 is quite significant for many reasons, as it can impact the range and combat circumstances from which aircraft carriers can project power. A carrier-operated refueler can nearly double the range of strike aircraft such as an F-35C or F/A-18, changing their possible attack scope. For instance, a carrier-launched fighter with a range or combat radius of several hundred miles could massively extend attack reach and over-target dwell time by using an MQ-25.

One dynamic of particular relevance pertains to the existence of the Chinese so-called “carrier-killer” anti-ship missiles such as the DF-26 and DF-21D, as some contend they could prevent carriers from operating within possible striking distance of Chinese shores, given that the weapons operate at reported ranges of more than 1,000 miles. The DF-26, by extension, is built to hit ranges farther than 2,000 miles, a dynamic which some say could push carriers out of strike range. While many maintain that advanced ship defenses would enable carriers to operate where needed regardless of the weapons, the existence of a range-doubling aerial refueler could naturally greatly impact this equation.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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