NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Later this year, Boeing’s prototype for the Navy’s MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial tanker will make its first flight from an Illinois airport. When the Stingray will start operating from U.S. carriers is less clear.
On April 28, Boeing moved its MQ-25A prototype from its manufacturing facility near St. Louis, Mo. to the MidAmerica regional airport where it will conduct its first flight later this year, Program Executive Officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons Rear Adm. Brian Corey said on Monday at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space 2019 symposium.
“The team is working through the software checks and the clearance with the FAA and the FCC, etcetera, to make sure when we operate the aircraft we operate it safely and we bring her home,” he said.
In August, Boeing won an $805 million contract to build the first four MQ-25A based on the prototype the company built in secret for the canceled Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) competition. Boeing kept the design when the program’s focus shifted to a tanking roll in 2015
At the time, Navy leaders were pushing for a 2024 IOC but Corey said that December guidance from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson is pushing the Navy to move to try and get the carrier earlier.
“When we awarded our contract [in August] we believed we could go to ’24, [but] CNO said ASAP,” Corey said. “I’m not going to give you a date. It’s as soon as we can.”
Unlike other competitors for the MQ-25A contract, Boeing came to the table with a flyable prototype that may help the Navy accelerate the program, Corey said.
“Part of what we’re doing by flying this test asset this year is figuring out how fast can we go,” he said.
“How much work can we get done on that vehicle before we build our first [contracted] vehicle?”
In tandem with tests of the airframe, Naval Air Systems Command is also developing the ground control station and the data links to operate the airframe.
In terms of how the MQ-25A will integrate with the rest of the carrier air wing, Corey said the Navy would employ a model similar to how MH-60R Seahawk crews use with the unmanned MQ-8 Fire Scout UAVs aboard Littoral Combat Ships.
The MQ-25As will be paired with the Navy’s E-2 Hawkeye community. E-2 pilots and naval flight officers will cross train to operate the MQ-25A from the carrier, Corey said.
The Navy is also upgrading four aircraft carriers with the Unmanned Carrier Aviation Mission Control System (UMCS) to operate the MQ-25As from the carrier. USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) will be the first carrier to be upgraded with the UMCS. USNI News previously reported USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) was also scheduled to be upgraded with UMCS.
Corey did not say which carrier would be the first to test the Stingray.