Boeing was the only contract competitor with a prototype of its winning MQ-25 design. The company will move forward with flight testing within months. (Image source: Boeing)

Boeing wins MQ-25 contract

Under an $805-million U.S. Navy contract, Boeing will build carrier-based unmanned aerial refuelers to extend the range of deployed fighters.
Boeing, headquartered in Chicago, will build the U.S. Navy’s first operational carrier-based unmanned refueling aircraft, the MQ-25 Stingray. The $805-million engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) contract was awarded yesterday, August 30.

According to the contract, Boeing will initially receive $79 million to begin work on four operational MQ-25 refueling “drones” with integration into the carrier air wing for initial operational capability by 2024. Boeing will receive another $9.5 billion at a later date to produce 72 more aircraft. The company plans to perform the work in St. Louis.

To mitigate technical and schedule risk, Boeing has been preparing for flight testing with an EMD-ready version of the unmanned tanker aircraft and will likely fly within months. The MQ-25 will also integrate with a carrier’s catapult and launch and recovery systems.

Boeing’s MQ-25 taxis up to a catapult system like those installed on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. The catapult shuttle (seen by the MQ-25 nose gear) uses compressed steam from a carrier’s nuclear reactors to accelerate a 45,000-pound aircraft from 0 to 165 miles per hour within two seconds. (Image source: Boeing)

“As a company, we made an investment in both our team and in an unmanned aircraft system that meets the U.S. Navy’s refueling requirements,” says Leanne Caret, president and CEO, Boeing Defense, Space & Security. “The fact that we’re already preparing for first flight is thanks to an outstanding team who understands the Navy and their need to have this important asset on carrier decks around the world.”

MQ-25 is designed to provide the U.S. Navy with much-needed refueling and range-extending capabilities for its relatively short-ranged carrier-based aircraft like the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Boeing EA-18G Growler, and Lockheed Martin F-35C aircraft.

Boeing MQ-25 testing at dusk (Image source: Boeing)

Boeing, which has been providing carrier aircraft to the U.S. Navy for more than 90 years, competed against Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) of Poway, Calif. 

The Boeing MQ-25 under a shroud, likely with wings in a folded configuration – a feature developed to save space on a crowded aircraft carrier hangar deck (Image source: Boeing)

Likely a consideration during the U.S. Navy’s contract deliberation was the Boeing MQ-25’s powerplant: a Rolls-Royce AE 3007 high-bypass turbofan engine. General Atomics’ contract entry – covered by SAE International last month – uses a similarly classed Pratt & Whitney PW815 engine. While the PW815 mainly sees use on private business jets; Boeing’s choice to use the Rolls-Royce AE3007 – also used by the U.S. Navy’s Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned surveillance aircraft – will likely prove more cost effective for U.S. Navy crews performing maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) activities with preexisting resources.

Contract-winner Boeing did join into a partnership to General Atomics in February of this year to co-develop General Atomics’ MQ-25 entry; however, no news has yet surfaced concerning a partnership between Boeing and General Atomics on the awarded contract.

Related: A Boeing/Saab team is competing for the USAF's T-X trainer contract with another clean-sheet design; the contract will likely be awarded by the end of September

The Navy used an accelerated acquisition program for the MQ-25 selection. The process is designed to expedite decisions and reduce overhead in order to significantly reduce development timelines by five to six years. 

“This is an historic day,” says Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson. “We will look back on this day and recognize that this event represents a dramatic shift in the way we define warfighting requirements, work with industry, integrate unmanned and manned aircraft, and improve the lethality of the airwing – all at relevant speed.  Everyone who helped achieve this milestone should be proud we're here.  But we have a lot more to do. It’s not the time to take our foot off the gas. Let's keep charging."

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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.

Contact him regarding any article or collaboration ideas by e-mail at
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