Home » Aviation » Boeing Unveils Its MQ-25A Stingray Entry Ahead of Jan. 3 Deadline for Proposals

Boeing Unveils Its MQ-25A Stingray Entry Ahead of Jan. 3 Deadline for Proposals

Boeing’s MQ-25 unmanned aircraft system is completing engine runs before heading to the flight ramp for deck handling demonstrations next year. The aircraft is designed to provide the U.S. Navy with refueling capabilities that would extend the combat range of deployed Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Boeing EA-18G Growler, and Lockheed Martin F-35C fighters. Boeing photo.

Boeing unveiled the first photo of its entry in the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial vehicle competition today.

The company is one of three competitors hoping to build the Navy’s first carrier-based UAV, which will serve as a mission tanker for the carrier air wing. General Atomics and Lockheed Martin are also competing. Northrop Grumman, who built the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Aircraft Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) used in testing dating back to 2013, dropped out of the competition in October.

Boeing’s photo shows a wing-body-tail design, a fuel-efficient design shared by General Atomics’ entry in the competition. Northrop Grumman’s X-47B had a cranked kite, flying wing design that was more geared towards the original stealthy strike and refueling concept, whereas the current MQ-25 requirement focuses just on mission tanking.

“Boeing has been delivering carrier aircraft to the Navy for almost 90 years,” Don ‘BD’ Gaddis, the program lead for Boeing’s Phantom Works division, said in a company news release.
“Our expertise gives us confidence in our approach. We will be ready for flight testing when the engineering and manufacturing development contract is awarded.”

The news release added that Boeing’s entry in the competition is “completing engine runs before heading to the flight ramp for deck handling demonstrations early next year.”

As a rapid acquisition project, the Navy has designated just two key performance parameters for the UAV: mission tanking, and carrier suitability. The winning design will have to launch and recover from an aircraft carrier at sea, just like any manned aircraft, and will have to meet manned planes at range to refuel them during missions, helping to nearly double the range of the carrier air wing.

The request for proposals (RFP) was issued to industry in October following a draft RFP in July. Boeing noted in its news release that proposals are due Jan. 3.

The Navy hopes to field the first MQ-25 by 2020 and has already announced that aircraft carriers USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) will be the first to operate the unmanned tanker.

  • ClarkeJohnston

    While I’m glad we have the technology; it is nonetheless saddening how advanced (Sterile?) war-making has become. Wish we could end the cycle; which seems unlikely.

    • sferrin

      Better to just hack people up with swords and rape and pilliage after a victory eh?

      • ClarkeJohnston

        No, plenty of that still going on; throughout Africa, SE Asia and the Middle East on a daily basis; my comment wishes to lament the never-ending nature of war(s).

    • NavySubNuke

      So in your opinion successfully defending our country, our allies, and our international partners from an aggressor without a high friendly body count is a bad thing?
      That is certainly an interesting opinion…..

      • ClarkeJohnston

        No, we need to stay ahead of the curve as best as possible; and strongly defend our land and people(s). That being said; sooner or later, these advanced tools of war will be used against us; by, take your pick: The Chinese, the Russians or the Iranians. (Remember that Iran hacked and crashed one of our newer UAV’s a couple if years ago?) In addition to being a PR coup for them; they were able, with help from either the Russians or the Chinese, to reverse-engineer the craft in the same way the US used to do with captured early MIG fighters. Sooner or later one loses control/custody of the technology; and then you’re back at square one vis-a-vie the development curve. We just have to spend inexorable amounts of money to keep ahead; and along the way have projects that should’ve been cancelled or never funded (V-22 Osprey, for example) Money does get wasted; and such monies do not get spent on homeland infrastructure, for example. As an aside, the largely worthless UN relies entirely too heavily on the US for funding and actual operations (Men/Women AND equipment) Would be nice if they actually picked up their tab.

        • Stephen

          We thought we could fly a UAV with unencrypted control signals. Any good ECM operator can detect, emulate & over-power an open signal. That’s how they took control of that bird. Like the Pueblo incident; military is forced to re-configure all sorts of electronics. Look at the replicated aircraft & ships coming out of China; stolen technology, improved & flown in our faces…

  • Duane

    Without expressing any preference for any of the contenders, and appreciating that the Navy wants to satisfy an immediate need of carrier-based tanking, I wish that the Navy had retained the stealth requirements. If I am an enemy, and I expected to be attacked by US CVN-based attack aircraft from long range, I’d focus my anti-air campaign on the tankers themselves. Taking out a single tanker will have a domino effect, taking out two or three attack aircraft who cannot make it back to the ship and have to ditch in the ocean instead. Without stealth, and without defensive counter-fires, these tankers are going to be sitting ducks. Even if they are servicing non-stealthy Super Hornets (soon to be joined by a fleet of F-35Cs), stealth is a big advantage while they transit to the refueling location and loiter waiting for their customers to show up.

    At least when we “waste” a Super Hornet to do tanking for their fellow attack squadrons, as we’ve been doing the last few years, they are fully equipped with sensors and countermeasures and weapons to protect themselves and fight back as necessary. And the X-47B that the Navy discarded after years of developmental work could be configured as both a tanker and fully equipped for defensive operations.

    • NavySubNuke

      Just because stealth isn’t a Key Performance Parameter doesn’t mean that stealth isn’t important or required — it just means that failure to deliver the required stealth isn’t important enough to cancel the entire program.
      The only way we can know for sure that stealth isn’t required is to review the CDD for the program. Without a review of the CDD we have no way of knowing if stealth is a Key System Attribute for example and, if it is, what the required RCS is.

      • Duane

        Everything I have read to date in published articles indicates that stealth is no longer a requirement, as it was for the original developmental program that resulted in the X-47B. At least two of the entrants so far have produced conceptual design sketches that do not have typical stealth features, including the Boeing design described in this post.

        • Al L.

          Stealth is a goofy movie concept. There is no such thing as a line over which one steps and walks into a state of “Stealth” What matters is whats the RCS relative to the sensor capability at the anticipated operating ranges.

          Even a C-17 is stealthy to radar when flying below the horizon.

          • Duane

            That’s a goofy statement about stealthiness being “goofy”. Stealthiness is one of the oldest and most valuable tactics of warfare or even subsistence hunting,and is the basis of the submarine, for instance … and one of the key capabilities of modern stealth aircraft like the F-35 that makes it virtually undefeatable by non-stealthy fourth genfighters .. and stealth is always valuable. See the enemy before he sees you, and victory is far easier.

            It is true that stealthiness is a continuum and not an “either/or” binary switch. But there is a pretty clear range of stealthiness that aids in aerial combat survival that is down in the small fraction of a square meter – above that and it’stoo easy for modern radar sensors to find and target you, and for AAMs to take you down.

          • Al L.

            “That’s a goofy statement about stealthiness being “goofy”.”

            I didn’t say stealthiness was goofy, I said stealth.

            As in this goofy assumption: “At least two of the entrants so far have produced conceptual design sketches that do not have typical stealth features,”

            So without “typical” “stealth” features something can’t be stealthy?

            You have no idea what the RCS of the MQ-25a is therefore you have no idea if it will be stealthy at the ranges it will operate. Stealthiness for a none penetrating aircraft looks nothing like it does for a penetrating aircraft.

            Even if the MQ-25 was shaped like a brick and was orbiting at 15000 feet 200 miles from hostile ground radars its invisible to most of them and hard to target for the rest. Any one whose followed the development of low signature aircraft over the past several decades can look at the photo and see that signature reduction is built into that shape. How much and whether it will make the aircraft unidentifiable under its operating scheme requires knowing its operating scheme, what it RCS is and being an appropriately trained expert.

            Are you an expert?

          • Duane

            The Navy did not include stealthiness as a requirement (as they did for the X-47B developmental program), and DID say that low cost and quick delivery were supreme considerations. The two applicants have submitted designs that on their surface do not appear to be stealthy.

            How many more “clues” do you need to no longer be clueless?

          • Al L.

            Duane here is cluelessness:

            1. you want MQ-25a to have penetrating attack or ISR like “stealth” features (which are properly called “Low Observable”) so it will be stealthy when its doing its job, which now is tanking, not penetrating attack or ISR.

            2. I and others point out to you that due to the change in its job the aircraft may already be able to be stealthy without such or different features (because there is this science called physics which has figured out what the limits of radar are under given conditions such as distance, attenuation, horizon, angle of incidence, etc.)

            3. You are apparently too clueless to realize that the plane may already have what you say it doesn’t (stealthiness) without the full set of features you label “stealth” (and properly called Low Observable). And that the Navy no longer needs that set of features as a priority because it can primarily make the plane stealthy by its operating scheme and secondarily by its form.

            4. You’re too clueless to realize you are using “stealth” like a goofy movie script (like its something they glue on: “Hey Duane says if we put some stealth on it it will be stealthy! “) and you should be using the term and concept “Low Observable”.

            5. Have you ever seen Tacit Blue? Perhaps you should look it up and then look at that picture again.

          • Duane

            Besides insults, you offer no real facts. The facts are that stealthiness is NOT a requirement for the MQ-25, and that low cost and fast delivery and that refueling only, absent any and all defensive capabilities, ARE requirements.

            Stealthiness is something that must be built into the design, and it is not something that people like you with cartoonish ideas of what stealth is think it is. It is about designing and building all phyisical surfaces in such a a way as to minimize radar wave reflections – and that includes everything including communications antennas, radar antennas, and any and all external appurtenances, to minimize RCS. It is about designing the engine exhaust to disperse the hot exhaust gases in such a way as to minimize IR energy. And it is about designing the comms and nav systems to minimize all RF emissions. And all of that has to be integrated into the design of everything in the airframe. If stealthiness is NOT a program requirement, and cost and speed of delivery are the paramount considerations, the competing aircraft will not be stealthy.

            If you don’t get any of that, there is nothing else that can be said to penetrate impervious thinking.

          • Al L.

            No Duane you are clueless. “Stealth” is a talking point. There is no recognizable standard for what is a stealth aircraft. And by your definition above even the F-35 is not “stealth” since all its physical surfaces are NOT optimized for radar. The technical term is low observable. Many aircraft today incorporate “stealth” features aka signature reduction, in shape, coatings, inlet configuration, layout, etc. That does not make them low observable. MQ-25 will not be an LO AC, is not required to be, and does not need to be for its primary mission because its not necessary in order to keep the enemy from readily targeting it, which is the point you continuously avoid. That does not mean that signature reduction is not built into the designs or wont be considered in evaluating the winner or is not useful. Because again to your original point: you want mq-25 to be hard to target in its physical character so it cant be found and shot down and I and others have pointed out that at the distances it will operate its already hard to target and shoot down so a small bit of signature reduction may go a long way which at least the Boeing design picture seems to have.

          • Duane

            If you think “stealth is a talking point” then you remove yourself from any sensible conversation of the subject.

    • Jason

      Stealth, for the Stingray, is actually not important for one very specific reason. The Navy decided it wanted to use the existing fuel delivery system off the Super Hornet as a way of saving billions of dollars in development cost. Since that system isn’t stealthy, there is no reason to spend billions of dollars making the MQ25 stealthy when its only mission precludes stealth.

      By not making the drones stealthy or manned, they are going to be relatively cheap and expendable which means the Navy can afford more of them and can presumably hold some in reserve to account for attrition. Furthermore, The Navy also retains the ability to offer a credible defensive umbrella with its destroyers and fighters which would make an all out assault on a relatively cheap drone a highly questionable endeavor… Especially if there is already another stingray airborne to act as a recover tanker if need be.

      Realistically, the only country that could target a refueling drone hundreds of miles at sea with a fighter stealthy enough to worry about is China.

      • Duane

        The attacker doesn’t need to be stealthy to find and kill our tankers … all they need are good sensors, either on board the fighter, another ISR aircraft (including drones), or on the surface and networked into the fighter. And literally any near peer enemy can provide any and all of the above. Russia, China, Iran, North Korea .. or someone else we don’t yet recognize as a threat but who can be supplied by any of the above. Just as the Chinese sold or gave C802 ASCMs to the Houthi rebels who then fired them at a UAE ship and a US Navy DDG last year.

        Stealthiness for tankers isn’t necessarily expensive at all, given today’s state of the art in stealth coatings, and with all aircraft being computer designed and composites having become standard materials for airframes.

        As I wrote, and which you did not acknowledge, even if the birds they’re tanking are not stealthy (though the proportion of stealthy birds is going to increase every year until within a decade more than half will be stealthy), the tanker still has to travel from the CVN to the rendezvous point, and loiter until they tank their customers, and then travel back to the CVN, undetected and untargeted by the enemy. Meaning by far most of their time aloft will be spent NOT connected to non-stealthy aircraft, making them extremely easy to find and kill targets for the enemy, who are not dumb. Enemies know the value of these tankers and what it means to deprive attackers of the fuel they need to complete their attack missions and return safely to the carrier.

        And, as I also wrote – at least the Super Hornets they’re tanking are not defenseless, as these tankers will be. SHs have sensors, ECM, physical countermeasures, supersonic speeds and high maneuverability, and air to air missiles to fend off attacks. These tankers will have none of the above – they’re just tankers, nothing more, nothing less. Literally they’re sitting ducks.

        The USAF has already declared that one of their biggest developmental needs is to either develop stealth tankers that are not easily targeted, or else be prepared to lose a lot of tankers in a near-peer war.

        • Jason

          The difference between the Air Force and the Navy is that even if a drone is loitering a few hundred miles from the Carrier, it is still likely under an Aegis Umbrella. In effect, it is defended whether there are fighters there or not. So, how many fighters is China going to risk to go after a single cheap refueling drone, hundreds of miles from its shores without the protection of an IADS? I doubt very many, especially since the Navy still has three other ways of refueling its fighters and that’s assuming another stingray can’t arrive on station in time (The Navy isn’t getting rid of buddy tankers, it can make use of Air force tankers, and finally, Vars on an Osprey can forward deploy on a destroyer or on Taiwan, etc.)

          You have to think of the nature of war we would likely fight against China in the first place. In all honesty it would almost certainly be primarily air to air, air to ship, and ship to ship (very little air to ground)… and most any war would be limited to a single objective, defending Taiwan, etc.. Anything else would risk nuclear war… In which case aerial refueling tankers for fighters are probably the least of our concerns.. So, in other words, Aircraft carriers aren’t likely to be used for deep strike missions against the Chinese mainland.

          So in keeping with what the mission would likely be, it isn’t at all inconceivable that the Navy would use the deficits of the MQ25 to set a trap. Why wouldn’t you use it as decoy by launching some F-35’s to escort the drone and wait for some bandits to show up. So let’s play out that scenario. The Navy launches an MQ25 and along with it a squadron of air to air configured F-35’s… 20-30 minutes later, it launches a flight of Super hornets configured as buddy tankers (to indicate a strike mission). China waits for the point of no return and successfully ambushes a 20 million dollar drone but loses an entire squadron of J-20’s as a result. The F-35’s immediately return to the buddy tanker hornets and all go on their merry way back to the carrier or on to another mission.

          Pretty soon China runs out of J-20’s

          • Duane

            The purpose of the tankers, per the Navy’s own RFP is to support tanking at up to 500 miles from the CVN. AEGIS cannot sense aircraft out to 500 miles, and the range of the the SM-6 is only about half that. So your notion that the CVNs and their CSG escorts can somehow protect the tankers from 500 miles is preposterous.

            And sending two F-35s out to escort the tanker? Talk about trying to hunt mice with an elephant gun! That’s even more preposterous. If you need to do that, then just use the F-35s as the tankers.

            The tanker drones may be relatively cheap (but not THAT cheap at likely around $25M or more each), but the aircraft they’re sustaining are not. Take out one$25M drone, and our side loses 2 or 3 $80M attack aircraft. All done using a long range SAM (from a surface ship, or land based battery) or aerial AAM launched from a long range bomber (of which the Russians and Chinese have plenty). We know that the Chinese and Russians operate long range SAMs and AAMs with ranges of up to 200 miles.

          • Jason

            Your last post was nonsensical. Do you not realize that a Carrier strike group isn’t a single point on the map? It is called a group for a reason. The ships (including picket ships) have to spread out up to 200 miles (give or take) away from the main body to allow for maximum opportunity of intercepting aircraft and submarines.. So, the point of reference for the Aegis shield isn’t 250 miles from the flight deck of the carrier, it is 250 miles from the most forward positioned DDG or CG in the group. So, do the math with me here, if you station a DDG 200 miles closer to shore than the carrier, what do you get? A defensive umbrella that extends 4-500 miles from the deck of the carrier… as I stated.

            When a carrier is underway, a certain percentage of fighters are also running combat air patrol to protect the fleet (and presumably tankers and awacs).. That is standard protocol. You kind of missed my point about the F-35. The idea here isn’t that we should always send F-35’s to escort drones. I was merely pointing out the flaw of the Rand study. Which is that if China is actually relying on its ability to deter/deny America through a strategy of targeting and shooting down refueling aircraft… the Chinese better be prepared for a relatively terrible attrition rate all to kill a target of questionable strategic value… As I just demonstrated, a minor change in American tactics (the purpose of my F-35 hypothetical) results in a profoundly bad exchange rate for China.

            It’s one thing to risk a couple of J-20’s or 20-30 J-11’s on a suicide mission, when the prize is a clear opportunity to kill a 150 million dollar KC-46…and a strong chance of downing a flight of F-22’s and F-35’s along with it (because they don’t have the fuel to get back to Guam or Japan or the carrier)..Even if China suffers a total loss of the entire squadron, without killing a single American fighter in the air, that might still result in a highly favorable exchange for China. However, the math isn’t nearly so appealing if you have to trade a couple of J-20’s or a squadron of J-11’s for a 20 million dollar unmmaned drone… that is redundant and not overly important to begin with since there are a few more of them spread out just slightly deeper in the Aegis umbrella. Quantity has a quality all of its own. And cost and quantity are integrally linked.

            Are you starting to understand why low cost is actually an important feature here? You can either make a plane so good, so stealthy, so advanced that it is hard to attack.. Or, you can make it so cheap and numerous that it isn’t worth attacking (at a strategic level). At least not if you value the manned planes that you would have to send against it.

          • Duane

            CSGs when aggregated means they are in fact in close proximity within a few miles of each other.

            You do realize that the principal anti-ASCM munition of the CGs and DDGs that make up CSGs is ESSM, which has a max range of 27 miles? And that ASCMs are the biggest threat posed to CVNs, aside from submarine launched torpedoes? And that ASW screens for CVNs also cannot be conducted from 200 miles away?

            Talk about nonsensical – your comment makes zero sense at all!

            An AEGIS warship does not need to be, and actually must NOT be 200 miles from the CVN even to provide coverage against ASBMs, let alone ASCMs Given that the maximum range of the SM-6 and SM-3 are only in the mid- 200s miles, and that the maximum sensing range for high altitude ASBMs is also roughly in the 200+ mile range, the proper place to protect a CVN is in the aggregated CSG where the ships are within ESSM range of the CVN.

          • Jason

            Sorry, you are embarrassing yourself. Do you not have google? The ships of CVBG are layered.. just as any rational person would expect them to be… The picket is essential and it has been since Jutland! Where do you think we get the name destroyer from? (Torpedo boat destroyer) granted the ranges are much different but the concept is the same. Why does the picket line need to be about 200 miles out? because it far easier to kill an enemy plane or ship before it launches its missiles rather than trying to kill the cruise missiles themselves. Just so you understand carrier formations, there would be a picket layer about 200 miles out (as I said) between the battle group and the likely direction of the enemy. After the picket there is an outer circle around 25 miles and the inner circle within 10 miles or so of the carrier. It is not particularly hard to understand why. After all, the more time and chances you have to react to threats the more likely you are to defeat those threats. If you didn’t have a picket layer, even crappy missile boats and frigates would pose an existential threat to carriers if they happen to wander into range. A harpoon only has a 70 mile range… Russian missiles have a 300 mile range. Are you suggestion that an enemy would be relatively free to approach within 100 miles of a carrier while the navy ships just sit back and wait, hoping to intercept missiles?? Don’t be so daft.

            Why is it so hard for you to admit that you are wrong? Especially when you obviously are.. It’s almost like you are just piling it on higher and higher to defend an originally trivial but incorrect assessment.

            Before you get yourself off track any further, let me reiterate… A naval refueling drone is under an aegis/CAP umbrella hundreds of miles away from the carrier.

        • Jason

          I also don’t really know where you are getting the idea that stealth is cheap. I assure you it is not. It pretty much doubles operating costs.

          • NavySubNuke

            Don’t worry too much about Duane – he likes to live in fantasy land and never lets things like facts both him too much.
            Just the other day he assured me that anti-ship cruise missiles were all sub-sonic and never maneuvered and that even the so called supersonics only went supersonic in the terminal phase after popping up and making themselves an easy target for SEARAM. **facepalm**

          • Maybe for B-2 / F-22 stealth. But the F-35 barely costs more to operate than the F-15 even though its not yet in widespread service.

          • Duane

            Actually, the AF reports that the hourly operating cost of the F-35A is half that of the F-15, and about the same as the F-16, which is its cheapest fighter to operate.

          • Jason

            Completely not true. The F-16 is roughly 2/3 the price to operate and it is only that close because the F-16 is a much older plane (28,000 vs. 42,000) and older planes require more care. Furthermore it isn’t really an apt comparison.. Presumably F-16’s have to put more stress and wear on the air frame/engine in order to practice surviving than a stealth fighter would…. the same isn’t true with tankers, since, presumably a stealth tanker and a regular tanker are flying very similar mission profiles. Stealth obviously adds cost and complexity to maintenance and development (Even durable coatings have to be thoroughly examined before every takeoff)… and it’s also impractical not to be able to easily upgrade sensors or hang extra tanks off of its wings, etc.

            To be clear, I am not saying there is no case for a stealth tanker. But I am saying that there is no case for a naval stealth tanker. As I said, Naval tankers can generally operate under an Aegis shield. The Navy also isn’t going all in on stealth the way the air force is.

            If the Air Force wants to add a boom to a handful of B-21 raiders, I can see that making sense…(primarily for central Asia) and then really only for certain missions. After all, penetrating deep strike is really in the Air Force’s domain not the Navy’s. But remember you can buy a heck of a lot of KC 46’s for just the development cost of a new stealth tanker. Tankers don’t generally operate in range of enemy fire, so spending 4 or 5 times what you need to spend for a capability probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.

          • Duane

            Nope- current hourly operating cost for the F-35A is approximately $25,000 per hour. You’re quoting very old numbers from many years ago, before the AF had more than a handful of maintainers and pre-ALIS.

          • Jason


          • El_Sid

            the AF reports that the hourly operating cost of the F-35A is half that of the F-15, and about the same as the F-16

            DoD per hour reimbursable rates 2017 are :

            AV-8B $15,128
            CH-53E $17,439
            E-2D $11,287
            MV-22B $12,219
            F/A-18C $11,164
            F/A-18E $10,566
            F-15C $21,506
            F-16C $8,205
            F-22A $34,309

            F-35A $21,842

            comptroller defense gov/Portals/45/documents/rates/fy2017/2017_f_h.pdf

          • Duane

            Uhh .. you’re wrong. The Air Force reports that the hourly operating cost of the F-35A is the same as the F-16, and is half the hourly operating cost of the F-15. The F-35 stealth coating system is extremely robust and can withstand normal outdoor weather conditions on the ramp and can be walked on and so forth. It is only the very old coatings of the B2 bomber and the F-22 that are not robust .. and LM is in the process now of converting the F-22 stealth coatings to the new F-35 formulation.

            The F-35A even at low rate 11 production contract rates is far cheaper than any fourth gen plus aircraft still in production today. When it reaches full rate production next fiscal year, the F-35A will be even cheaper than straight fourth gen aircraft.

    • Bryan

      Refueled fighters generally between enemy and tanker. That’s the whole idea of a tanker.
      Fighters flying off a carrier= E-2C/D with big picture of enemy out to 250+

      • Jason

        Far be it for me to defend Duane, but I think he is referencing a semi-recent Rand study which basically posits that “China”, would, in essence, ignore the fighter screen (taking heavy losses counting on the limited missiles capacity of stealth fighters) and just attack the aerial refuelers with long range air to air missiles… Even without losing a single fighter in the mix the Americans would lack the range to make it back to base and would crash in the Pacific, thus losing the entire sortie making whatever the exchange ratio between fighters almost irrelevant. Since China would be fighting close to its home it would win any war of attrition.

        I think that Rand’s argument is highly dubious because it assumes a perfect knowledge that China wouldn’t possess in a dynamic shooting war… all to push an extremely risky strategy. After all, if the U.S. adopts the CUDA or SACM missiles, the central premise (low missile count for American stealth fighters vanishes)… It is also not as if the Americans are selling their buddy refueling tanks. Which means that even if the Chinese risk a huge number of fighters to down a single heavy lift refueler, that doesn’t mean that F-18’s aren’t configured as buddy tankers. Or that the U.S. hasn’t configured a B-21 Raider as an air to air refueler.

        • Duane

          The Russians and Chinese already possess, in relatively large numbers, the platforms (long range bombers and surface ships), sensors, and long range AAMs and SAMs to easily set up a picket line well offshore to sense, target, and pick off non-stealthy tankers. They don’t need to send fighters out to do this long range work.

          It does not take a genius to understand that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and a non-stealthy, defenseless tanker is the weak link in long range attacks by carrier based aircraft. The enemy most certainly WILL go after the weak link. It’s much easier to take out a highly visible undefended tanker than the attack aircraft they’re supposed to tank.

          • Jason

            Neither Russia nor China possess any such platform. SAM’s at best have a 400 mile range (and that’s being extremely generous). An F-35C has a 650 mile range…With Standoff munitions, you can add at least an extra 100 miles putting them well safe of any land based threat. So No. Land based SAM’s don’t pose any threat to Naval tankers at least not in the near future.

            As for ships, any major surface combatant would likely never be allowed to get within 1000 miles of a carrier strike group at sea in a time of war. After all, any ship that can successfully shoot down a loitering tanker can also severely damage or sink a carrier… which makes them primary targets. Since neither Russia nor China have any significant ability to project air power at sea. Neither country has impressive carriers nor enough connectors (aerial refuelers) nor enough stealth fighters of sufficient quality to defend the surface fleet any distance from shore or to pose a realistic land based air threat to a strike group. The carrier itself, therefore is likely to remain reasonably safe.. until something else comes along.

            What about DF21’s and hyper-sonic cruise missiles? You can’t kill what you can’t track. In a peer state war it is very safe to assume all tracking satellites would be DOA… almost immediately. Which basically only leaves fighters and surveillance aircraft. Which will shrink the targetable range of carrier way down to a few hundred miles at best, at least in a denied environment.

            Furthermore, in the case of Russia, the Navy just isn’t important any more. Russia’s fleet is a tiny fraction of the old Soviet fleet.. and now they seemingly can only manage to build frigates and subs. Not only are our ships vastly superior, we also have a heck of a lot more of them. NATO has also expanded so deep into former soviet territory that it is very difficult to image why we would need to use aircraft carriers against land threats anyway. And Russia no where near enough guided missiles to even pretend to target a well dispersed fighter fleet.

            Once again, there is difference between fighting a peripheral war and an invasion. There is zero chance that we would ever send tactical fighters to conduct strikes into Russia or China. Why? Because at that point you would seriously be risking nuclear war.

          • El_Sid

            The “land-based” threat isn’t just about SAMs, Russia already has Phoenix-class AAMs and have “AWACS-killers” with twice the range of Phoenix under development. At the moment they’re only on (relatively rare) Foxhounds, it’s more a problem once you get 100-200 mile missiles onto Flankers.

          • So how does a Flanker with its ~50 mile radar detect targets for a 200 mile missile?

      • Duane

        The stated requirement in the RFP is to conduct refueling at up to 500 miles from the carrier … double the distance of any possible sensing or SAM attacks from the carrier’s AEGIS escorts.

        And “between enemy and tanker” is referring to the location of the enemy’s targeted facilities – not where the enemy might have their own aerial and surface ship assets posted to intercept long range attacks attempting to evade A2/AD. We know for a fact that the Russians and Chinese both operate large fleets of very long range bombers with their own aerial sensors and the ability to fire very long range AAMs (ranges of up to 200+ miles).

        A slow moving non stealthy and utterly defenseless tanker in contested airspace is a non-starter. As soon as the enemy downs a few of our tankers, the battle is over. At that point, we have to move our carriers to within the A2/AD battlespace to within range of our fighter/attack aircraft, or we have to call off the attack, or go back to using Super Hornets as tankers again.

        Don’t think for a moment that the Russians and Chinese have not only thought all that through, but they certainly have tactics ready to go in such a scenario.

        All the enemy need do is to operate a picket line of such bombers, perhaps with fighter escorts, and they simply down all our tankers as soon as the come in range.

        THAT is why stealthy tankers are necessary to defeat that already-existing and very real mode of defense.

    • the_artist_formerly_known_as_m

      Pictures showing Super Hornets used for tanking have all stations equipped with fuel tanks. Which means no weapons other than 20mm. And they aren’t exactly maneuverable in that configuration.

      A dedicated UAV tanker makes a lot of sense. It’s a dull and predictable mission – perfect for a UAV. It also allows strike-fighter to spend leas time tanking and more time on their primary mission area(s).

      • CharleyA

        Wingtip stations can carry AIM-9s or AIM-120s, and are not used for EFTs.

        • Tim Downing

          Using a fighter to refuel a fighter is like US Army using a tank to refuel a tank. Fighters are made to burn fuel and go fast. To be efficient tanker aircraft, the MQ-25A will be very fuel efficient and carry at least two times the fuel the F-35C will carry. That will allow the MQ-25A to refuel (4) F-35Cs or F-18s at 400+ NMs from the carrier in support of long range strikes. The F-18s as tankers can’t even refuel one F-35C or F-18 at 400 NM from the carrier and make it back to the carrier.

      • Duane

        Super Hornets have a total of 11 hardpoints, including 2 wingtip stations. The SH doesn’t carry 11 external fuel tanks – it’s max tank load is 5 external tanks totaling 16,380 pounds. Max external load, fuel plus weaps is 17,750 pounds. Meaning with max fuel load it still has plenty of capacity to carry two AIM-9X (188 pounds each) or two AIM 120 (335 pounds each) on the two wingtip hardpoints Two AAMs plus sensors plus countermeasures is plenty of defense during a tanking (non offensive) mission. If SHs don’t carry the AAMs on a tanking mission, it is not because they cannot but because they are not operating in a contested airspace environment.

        • Tim Downing

          Can and will carry them, but the issue is as a mission tanker the F-18E/F can only fly a 1+15 cycle and provide fuel at 250 NM from the carrier. USN needs a 2+30 double cycle tanker that can give a lot of fuel at 400 – 500 NM from the carrier so that the F-35Cs and F-18E/Fs can fly 3+45 triple cycle strike mission (1,500+ NM round trip mission). My guess is that the MQ-25A will carry 40+k of fuel and require about 3k lbs per flight hour at mission tanking transit speed and less than 2K per hour for loiter. Such fuel load and burn rate would allow one MQ-25A to refuel 4 F-35C or F-18E/F/G strike aircraft. Four MQ-25As could support an 8 plane deep strike package (close to 1000 NM strike for F-35Cs).

      • Chesapeakeguy

        Here’s a question. If an F-18 on a tanking mission comes under attack, or at least detects a possible threat approaching it, what becomes of the refueling tanks if the pilot decides to engage? If he is indeed carrying either Sidewinders or AMRAAMs, is he even able to jettison the tanks used to refuel other planes? But jettisoning fuel tanks is a standard practice before engaging airborne threats. To use the Sidewinders, some amount of positioning might have to take place to get a viable shot. AMRAAMS don’t have the highest rate for reliability, so the same might apply to them as well. Not to mention the pilot being preoccupied with his/her tanking responsibilities, and having to keep the plane steady while transferring fuel AND watching out for bandits could be a recipe for disaster. And if those tanks can be jettisoned, wouldn’t that put the planes depending on it in danger of running out of gas and crashing? With the tanks on, even if they’re empty or near empty, the plane’s maneuverability will be mightily impacted. I don’t think it’s so simple and clear that a pilot in such a situation will make a fight of it even if he was armed to any extent. .

        • Tim Downing

          Great point, but one issue. The F-18 “mission” tanker can get out about 200-250 NM from the carrier to tank and then runs home on bingo fuel (it only has 1 hour and 15 minutes to fly out, give fuel and get back to the carrier). If the enemy is within 300 NM of the carrier, someone has really screwed up big time and gotten the CSG way to close to the enemy coastline without eliminating the enemy defenses. The whole idea is the USN is looking to get the F-35Cs out to 900 NMs or more for strikes (3+45 flight time) and have a tanker that can give 30+k of fuel with a 2+30 flight time.

      • Tim Downing

        It will also carry a lot more fuel to give than the F-18E/F and allow the fighters to reach out well beyond what a F-18 tanker could ever support. The MQ-25A should be able to provide tanking at 500 NM for several F-35Cs or F-18E/F/G aircraft as a tanker by definition is a fuel efficient delivery platform, not a fuel eater like a fighter.

    • Tim Downing

      Did you ever think about using the MQ-25A as bat for the enemy? Having the ability to carry 40+k of fuel is far more important to the USN mission than stealth in a tanker. In general a mission tanker will top off F-35Cs and F-18E/F/F/G aircraft while 300 to 400 NM from the targets. Mission tankers do not sit and loiter like a recovery tanker or on a tanker track like the USAF tankers do. A mission tanker tanks and heads home for more fuel. If an enemy is going to target a MQ-25A tanker, they have to move very fast to intercept it 300+ NM from their coast and be ready for F-18s or F-35Cs to make it a very challenging target to destroy. Not saying it can not be done, just not easy and in most cases the fuel has been off loaded and the enemy just lost a lot of fighter aircraft and pilots 300+ NMs from their coastline that are no longer available to defend their coastline from future attacks.
      Bottom line is the USN does not think, train or fight like the USAF.

  • Ed L

    In an idea world, Flight Ops to begin in 90 days with an endurance flight and a 5 day sortie exercise with a minumn of Eight sorties a day mission length of 2 hours to be rotated every 10 days for a period of 100 days. But that will not happen. too much politics envolved.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    Ummm, wouldn’t a ‘stealthy’ tanker be hard to find for a fill up? LOL..

    • Duane

      No – the tanker goes to a predetermined rally point for tanking, where they meet up with their customers, who also know where the rally point is.

      “Stealthy” does not mean optically invisible.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        Sorry Duane, my apologies. I should have dumbed down my comment so that even YOU could see the humor it attempted to convey. Everyone else appears to have got that. But I’ll take the hit, because after all, it’s YOU.

        • Duane

          Actually, you may believe it’s all a joke and dumb to discuss – though you raised the issue, not me – but tanking is normally done with a lot of comms between the tanker and the air crews of the aircraft they’re tanking. In a stealthy environment, any emission defeat stealthiness, even if the comms are fully encrypted and unreadable by the enemy. This is not something our military planners and operators have had to face, because we have never had a stealthy tanker before.

          The joke’s on you – like the proverbial blind squirrel who once in a great while stumbles upon the proverbial acorn, despite his incompetency.

          • Chesapeakeguy

            Keep trying Duane. YOU got caught, again. A harmless utterance went WAY over your head as always. That seems to be a trend with you. Your inability to keep up with a discussion is now legendary. Heck, it’s epic. Take a bow Duane. LOL..

          • Duane

            “Caught” …. you’re delusional. I responded with a serious adult answer to a question you posed as a joke, not realizing it’s no joke at all except to those who know nothing of the subject. The joke’s clearly on you. You “caught” yourself. And now think yourself wise for having done so.

          • Chesapeakeguy

            You responded with your typical knee jerk reaction and self anointed ‘know it all’ antics to a post EVERYONE except YOU got. The same would apply to the ‘stealthy’ LCS or any other entity or platform that employs stealth. Only YOU could not grasp that it was written in fun. As is always the case, you just can’t help yourself, can you now?

            Laugh Out LOUD!

    • Kenneth Millstein

      I wish I had thought about that! I suppose a few people didn’t get the point!

  • Jack___Hole


  • kye154

    Its what a Batmobile should really look like.

    But, it is a waste of technology, if it going to do nothing more than ferry fuel to the other planes. Why not make the combat aircraft more fuel efficient, say like, redesigning the engines for Supercruise. (Not talking about injecting raw fuel into the afterburner). For the costs of this new aircraft, (this prototype costs $43 million), we could buy quite a few fuel efficient jets engines, and negate the need for the MQ-25. Afterall, the F-22 is the only combat aircraft design in the U.S. inventory with supercruise installed from the factory. The Concorde, when it was in service, had it, and practically all the new Russian fighters have it too. Why do we lag behind in fuel efficient jet engine technology?

    Or, why not design the MQ-25 to fly from tankers instead of a carrier? You would accomplish 2 things by doing this:
    1. It doesn’t take-up room on the hanger deck of a carrier, that could be used for another fighter.
    2. Carriers have to replenish aviation-fuel from oilers frequently in high-tempo ops anyway. Redesigning the MQ-25 and the oiler to accommodate a more direct transfer, would reduce the logistics chain of transporting fuel from one ship to another and then to the MQ-25 to ferry fuel to combat aircraft.

    The real reason they decided to construct the MQ-25, was mostly for those very draggy designed gas-hogs called the F-35s they are pressing into service. The F35C version has combat radius of 925 km on internal fuel and with 6 missiles, which is comparable to the fuel-inefficient. F-16A which also has combat radius of 925 km

    • Ziv

      From everything that I have read, the F-18C and F-18E both have a combat radius of less than 750 km/450 nm. And for most missions the F-35C has a combat radius of just over 1100 km/630 nm. For a “gas hog” the F-35 seems to have a pretty decent range.

      • Duane

        kye doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The F-35 has much longer legs than even the vaunted old F-14 Tomcats, let alone the Super Hornets.

      • kye154

        What you read was the original specs from Lockheed that they were trying to achieve. The F-35 never did live up to those specs. The F-35 was first designed in 1992, when those specs were first issued. The first plane, (after many problems), did not fly until 2005. Since that time, they have had difficulty meeting many of the original specs. In 2015, Defense Issues ran an article about this called “F-35 Reality Check” , and that was cited, along with the claims:
        1. F-35 is designed to outturn and out accelerate the F-16, (hasn’t measured up in any tests yet),
        2. F-35 can outmaneuver Eurocanards, (F-35s weight and inertia is greater than the Eurocanards, so it is not possible),
        3. F-35 is a multirole aircraft, (DoD has since changed the role of the F-35 to ground attack, but has to have F-22s for air-cover),
        4. F-35 is designed to defeat today’s most advanced air and ground threats. (Far from it. It doesn’t measure up against the Chinese J-20s or J-31s or the Russian SU-35, or the RAF Typhoons),
        5. F-35 is one aircraft replacing X different aircraft, (This is an over-embellishment sales pitch. The F-35 comes in 3 variants in design, and their roles are completely different, and are not interchangable).
        6. F-35 is stealth aircraft, (only if no external ordinance or fuel tanks are hanging underneath,),

        …along with other issues, like poor climb rate, fuel usage, etc.,. What they have found was, there was no real advantages of the F-35, and even the Australians, who bought some of the F-35s aren’t too happy about them either, to say these jets were about 10 years behind the times, and no better than some legacy aircraft that the F-35 was meant to replace.

        • Ziv

          But the ROK air force just issued notice today that they will be buying 20 ADDITIONAL F-35A’s. So experts don’t share your view on the F-35. And the full maneuverability of the F-35 hasn’t been opened up until the Block 3F software was put into use recently, so the previous tests were limited in the amount of g force the aircraft was programmed to allow. The original combat radius of the C model was supposed to be 700 nm, and the new combat radius does appear to 630 nm, though I have seen reports that it was thought to be just 615 nm around 2011 but they have improved that since.
          The other thing to remember is that the people that actually fly the F-35 and the F-16 think the F-35 is a beast.
          I agree that the F-35 has had a long and painful gestation period but it appears to be coming into its own.

          • kye154

            Well, first of all, it is not my view of the F-35. It’s the views that I simply passed on of what both American pilots, Canadian, and Australian pilots who have actually flown it, aeroflight engineers, and even the Pentagon’s own Operational Test and Evaluation program have summarized about the deficiencies of the plane. (See Dr. J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester October 2015 report).

            Secondly, ROK is a bit of a “hostage costumer” of the U.S.,. Practically all their war equipment is of U.S. manufacture. But, In August 2013, the F-35 was essentially eliminated from the South Korea’s competition when the American foreign military sales process prevented Lockheed Martin from offering a price that did not exceed South Korea’s budget for the program, leaving just the Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle within the nation’s budget. Lockheed Martin responded that it would work with the American government to continue to offer the F-35 to South Korea. Eventually the Lockheed Martin and the U.S. coerced South Korea into a sale anyway, in 2014 , which a $7 billion contract was made for 60 aircraft, which immediately got reduced to 40, due to unmanageable costs of the F-35. Consequently, a stipulation was added to the contract that 20 additional F-35A fighter jets could be procured at a later stage depending on the security environment on the Korean peninsula, but that doesn’t equate in meaning that the ROKAF really likes the F-35. (The ROKAF seemed to have issues about performance with the F-35 too, besides just the horrendous costs). The F-35 was all that was being offered to South Korea by the U.S, principally. to intimidate North Korea, by saying their neighbor, (South Korea), has now obtained a new “sports model” from the U.S., and that is what is being played up in the news. But for the security of South Korea, it doesn’t provide any better performance than their first choice of the F-15SE.

    • Tim Downing

      kye; You sound just like the F-18A salesman back in 1980 that promise 600 NM combat radius and delivered only 400 NM. Then the F-18E was promised to be 700 NM and delivered 500 NM. In case you have not noticed those Russian fighters have short combat range and the F-22 is good but trades off fuel for ordnance. The one thing abou the F-35 is that it can carry a lot of internal ordnance including two, 2000 lbs bombs plus missiles (except the F-35B which only carries two, 1,000 pound bomb).

  • b2

    Uggh. I am not encouraged with this “Popular Mechanics oriented”, tantalizing photo, though I acknowledge the L-gear looks sturdy. However a quick look shows no wing stations… Buddy store requirement on centerline? To accomplish even 80% of what is proposed in the requirement bantered about in the article, will necessitate this vehicle lugging 25-30K lbs of JP off the cat…and single engine as it appears. What do you think? All my experience of 30+ years with this mission cry out like a bitchin betty…

    My “Karnac prediction” is that the new “plastic” construction will take years and years of expensive development to become marginally carrier suitable for the mission as it is known today.. But then we never overdesign anything anymore for CV use like the S-3, F-14 and A-6. B.D. Gaddis- lol- another potus helo program? Revolving door, eh? 😉

    • Tim Downing

      b2; Ran some numbers and came up with a stripped out S-3 would be about 22k empty weight with internal tanks to support 40K of fuel. Means she could launch with 30k fuel (52,400 lbs max cat) and take on 10k airborne. She would take 2+00 to take on the 10k and get out to 500 NM and have a give around 32k. That could almost refuel 4 F-35Cs or 4 F-18E/F/Gs. Would like to have 36k give. So we are looking at a 3 cycle (3+45) round-trip for the stripped down S-3.
      Given that the S-3 is 1960s construction, I’m thinking the MQ-24A could launch with 42k (64k max cat) with a single turbo fan of 20k+ thrust and smaller deck spot of 1.0 (no crew space, just fuel, electronics and engine) and have a mission cruise of 450 knots TAS. She would be a double cycle 500 NM tanker with 36k give. I don’t think these are hard number to reach with today’s engineering and construction. Bigger issue is the short time frame to deliver and having the buddy store drag and slow intern to buddy store fuel transfer issue to move 9 k of fuel per bird.
      Your thoughts?

  • Ed L

    The faster we can get a stealth tanker in service the better. Now we need a stealth airborne radar in service too. While they will radiate while on station when they come off station they can hide. Plus the military could use a extremely high attitude surveillance platforms. Cheap and small