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US Navy carriers will be upgraded in order to be prepared to carry unmanned refueling tankers. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) will be the first two carriers to field the Navy’s MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial refueling tanker.
A Navy spokesperson told news.usni.org. that the two carriers will receive upgrades to include the control stations and data links needed to control the tanker.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson reportedly intends to accelerate the deployment of the Stingray and get it on carrier decks as early as 2019.
The aircraft is in high-demand because it would help alleviate the burden on the carrier air wing’s current refueling aircraft: the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of Super Hornet sorties are used for refueling missions.
The service is set to release the request for proposals (RFP) to the four competitors for the business – General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman – later this year.
The Fiscal Year 2018 proposed budget included $222 million for research and development of the MQ-25A.
Meanwhile, the Navy decided to reprogram $26.7 million for control systems and data link installation the MQ-25A will need to operate from an aircraft carrier.
Most of the attention for the Stingray program has been on the air segment, the data link and control stations make up the other two-thirds of the program and are being developed by the Navy inside NAVAIR.
While the Stingray program cycled through several iterations, the fundamental work of the links and the control stations remained largely unchanged. The data link and control station will also be able to interface with future unmanned airframes as they’re developed for the service.
Through the churn of the requirements for the air segment, the Navy has not outlined its next steps for unmanned carrier aviation beyond the limited goals for the MQ-25A.
However, the UCLASS control system will be able to quickly add new aircraft to capable carriers.