An unmanned tanker aircraft has successfully refueled a US Navy carrier-based fighter jet for the first time, the Navy announced Monday.
A Boeing MQ-25 Stingray test drone refueled an F/A-18 Super Hornet on Friday near MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois, demonstrating that the new unmanned aircraft "can fulfill its tanker mission," the Navy said.
Flying at operationally relevant speeds and altitudes, the F/A-18 flew as close as 20 feet behind the unmanned aerial-refueling tanker. The MQ-25 test asset then extend the hose and drogue from the Aerial Refueling Store and plugged into the fighter to transfer the fuel.
Rear Adm. Brian Corey, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, said in a statement that the "MQ-25 will greatly increase the range and endurance of the future carrier air wing."
The MQ-25 will be the world's first operational carrier-based drone. It is expected to not only provide additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to Navy aircraft carriers but also significantly extend the reach of carrier-based fighter jets, a necessity given the changing capabilities of America's rivals.
China's growing arsenal of anti-ship missiles with the potential to threaten US naval assets has forced the Navy to think carefully about how it might employ its carriers in a great-power conflict.
With unmanned aerial refueling assets like the MQ-25, which can carry up to 15,000 pounds of fuel, the Navy can free up manned assets and engage an enemy at a distance without putting its carriers in harms way.
Capt. Chad Reed, program manager for the Navy's Unmanned Carrier Aviation program office (PMA-268), said that the recent test was "a significant and exciting moment for the Navy and shows concrete progress toward realizing MQ-25's capabilities for the fleet."