Updated 11:29 AM EDT, Tue, Jun 16, 2020

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US Navy Robot Aerial Drone Tanker a Secret Weapon in Fight against China


(Photo : US Navy) MQ-25 Stingray.

The "secret weapon" the U.S. Navy will rely on so its Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighters and Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets can destroy warships of the People's Liberation Army Navy from over 1,000 km away won't be a new anti-ship missile but a robotic aerial tanker aircraft.

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Prototypes of the carrier-launched refueling drone -- the MQ-25A Stingray-- are now flying and are designed to extend the combat range of carrier-borne combat aircraft such as the F-35C and the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets.

The navy now plans to upgrade the autonomous MQ-25 into a jam-proof aerial drone that will operate aboard aircraft carriers by launching an industry-wide competition. The first key step towards this goal, a draft request for proposal (RFP) for the Stingray, was issued late last year.

The final RFP (this for the air segment) has just been issued to Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics.

The Navy plans to have the final MQ-25 design by 2018 and receive its first operational Stingrays by 2021.

Research and development effort are currently focused on technical and task analysis covering a wide range of such as carrier suitability and integration, missions systems and software and cybersecurity.

The MQ-25 robot tanker will extend the range of carrier strike jets and allow navy carriers to operate well outside the effective distance of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles such as the land-launched DF-21D, which has a range of some 1,400 km.

The navy said the MQ-25 will provide a robust organic refueling capability that will extend the range of the carrier air wing. 

The MQ-25's mission is "recovery tanking" in which it refuels planes flying in a fixed orbit around an aircraft carrier.

This method will allow Navy combat jets such as F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F-35Cs J to fly missions with enough fuel to return to their mother carriers.

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