After two decades of experimenting with how unmanned aircraft might fit into a carrier air wing, the Navy has settled on a concept: it wants an aerial-refueling drone that can extend the reach of carrier-based fighters to 1000 nautical miles. At present, it has to rely on some fighters to fuel others; if drones can take over that role, then all of the strike fighters in an air wing can be dedicated to tip-of-the-spear combat missions. The program to develop such a drone is designated MQ-25, with the “M” standing for multi-mission and the “Q” for unmanned. The multi-mission part reflects Navy plans to use the same airframe for collecting reconnaissance when it isn’t doing refueling. If MQ-25 comes to fruition, it could be the beginning of a sea change in how naval aviation conducts warfare. Once the service gets comfortable with operating manned and unmanned aircraft off the same carrier deck, the range of missions MQ-25 performs will likely grow. That is is one reason why Boeing has decided MQ-25 is a must-win for its defense business. I have written a commentary for Forbes here.
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