A prototype for the United States Navy’s new unmanned tanker is scheduled to deploy aboard American aircraft carriers in 2026.
Although testing is still ongoing, the tanker platform holds promise for the Navy. It could improve the range of the current carrier air wing without requiring a pilot for flight.
“We now need to continue to further develop the MQ-25A to ensure that it’s going to be able to function within the air wing. [Fly] up to 500 miles away from the ship and be able to pass gas on the way out,” Vice Adm. Scott Conn, the deputy chief of naval operations for warfighting requirements and capabilities, said on Tuesday, according to USNI. “It’s all about expanding our operational reach. Based on the environment and the threat, we need to continue to get more operational reach, continue to operate further and further away from our carriers. The MQ-25 is an important aspect of that.”
A press release from Naval Air Systems Command said that “integration of a persistent, sea-based tanker into the (carrier air wing) will make better use of our combat strike fighters and extend the range of our aircraft carriers.”
Although the Stingray is not intended to be a disposable aircraft, the loss on the battlefield of an aircraft like the MQ-25 would be much easier for the Navy to absorb than a piloted tanker aircraft or a Super Hornet feeding fuel to another Super Hornet.
The Stingray’s unmanned nature could also give the Navy a stealth advantage. With no cockpit, the Stingray could offer enemy radar a more diminutive, stealthier profile than a large tanker aircraft and therefore be a more survivable aircraft.
“We kind of went skinny on the initial requirements for this in order to be sure that we’re able to go fast. So MQ-25 is capable of significantly more than we are asking it to do at (initial operational capability),” said Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle in December, according to USNI. “So at (initial operational capability), it needs to be able to operate around an aircraft carrier and be able to conduct aerial refueling, and that’s as far as we went.”
Loiselle leads the chief of naval operations air warfare directorate.
“The rest of it will be spiral developed because it’s got significant additional capabilities with a mission bay and weapons phase that, you know, we plan to make use of in the future,” he said.
Though the MQ-25 Stingray is not yet in service with American warships, it will not be long until the tanker is in the air over the ocean.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer with the National Interest. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson.