The US Navy has picked Boeing to supply unmanned tanker aircraft. The navy last week awarded a $US805 million ($A1.1 billion) development contract for four MQ-25A aircraft to be completed by August 2024. The program may expand to $US13 billion ($A18 billion) overall and consist of 72 aircraft.
The MQ-25 will be used to refuel the US Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornet (also used by the RAAF), Boeing EA-18G Growler, and Lockheed Martin F-35C aircraft. The Navy says the unmanned tanker will extend the Super Hornet’s 450 nm unrefuelled combat radius to beyond 700 nm. Navy specifications were for the aircraft to deliver 6800 kg of fuel total to four to six Super Hornets at a range of 500 nm. The MQ-25 uses the same carrier catapult launch and wire recovery system as the navy’s manned aircraft.
Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics also bid for the tanker contract.
Aerial refuelling was first developed in the 1930s and was adopted as a military technology in the early 1950s. There are two systems in use—the probe-and-drogue system, as used by the MQ-25, and the flying boom, the latter requiring a dedicated operator on the tanker aircraft.