The U.S. Navy wants a drone that can fly off an aircraft carrier, but not to bomb the enemy or engage other aircraft—at least, not yet.
The MQ-25 Stingray will be an unmanned tanker, extending the range of the other carrier aircraft, with the possibility of bomber and intelligence-gathering missions baked into the plane down the road. The Navy has to the four companies vying to produce the first operational, carrier-borne drone.
Now, the Navy has also proven that unmanned carrier landings and takeoffs are possible. The , a tech demonstrator built for this purpose, achieved the feat with flying colors in 2013. Once the technology was proven, the Navy had to figure out exactly what kind of missions its first carrier drone would undertake
Many naval analysts initially clamored for a new unmanned, long range bomber. For decades the Navy had the , a dedicated carrier-borne bomber that had a range of about 1,000 nautical miles when fully loaded with bombs and missiles, and that's not including the possibility of midair refueling. But its replacement to be, the stealth bomber, was canceled in the early 1990s after cost overruns and the end of the Cold War.
But a more pressing concern for the Navy may be range. Today's F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and the upcoming F-35C—the aircraft carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter—have a combat range just over half that of the A-6. While this hasn't become a pressing issue in recent years, China's emphasis on new weapons meant to keep American ships and planes away from mainland Asia has suddenly pushed the range problem to the forefront. Long range aircraft are suddenly in vogue, the idea being to "out-stick" Chinese weapons such as the without exposing American ships to needless risk. If you have planes with enough range to keep the aircraft carrier out of harm's way, those defense are no problem.
Rather than building a fleet of long-range drone bombers, however, the Navy took a different tack. The new drone, now known as the MQ-25 Stingray, will be an aerial refueling tanker. While this is an unglamorous job, the decision makes a lot of sense. American Nimitz and Ford-class supercarriers but routinely carried 85 to 90 aircraft during the Cold War, so there's room on them for a dozen or so additional planes planes. Instead of fielding ten new long-range strike planes, a carrier could instead have ten drone tankers that help the ship's 44 strike jets reach distant targets. A tanker is also faster, cheaper, and easier to develop. The Navy has said that once the Stingray platform has matured, then limited intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities could be added in, as well as a modest strike capability.
The risk reduction contracts went out to Northrop Grumman Systems Corp ($24 million), Boeing ($19.1 million), Lockheed Martin ($18.9 million) and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems ($18.7 million). Northrop Grumman, the developer of the original X-47B drone, likely has the lead as the only contractor that has built a carrier drone before. Analyst Craig Hooper suggests Boeing might offer an , which would keep the "Superbug" production line humming for years. Lockheed Martin has a flying wing design that, , combines its experience with the drone and the F-35. Finally, General Atomics is proposing a carrier-borne version of its . Whatever the case, the MQ-25's focus means that whatever design is eventually chosen, the entire carrier air wing will benefit.
Here's a video of Lockheed Martin's entry for the original carrier drone program, UCLASS. The company's MQ-25 offering will likely look very similar: