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An unmanned aerial refueling tanker is sought by the US Navy. In its latest draft request for proposals, the Navy pitched four major defense firms to submit concepts for a future unmanned aerial refueling tanker that top officials say could be flying with the first aircraft carrier wing as early as 2019 or 2020. The final RFP is expected to be issued sometime this fall, officials told USNI News.

“The intent of this system is to extend the striking capability of the carrier air wing through organic tanking capability,” Rear Adm. Mark Darrah, Program Executive Officer Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, said. “We want to make better use of our combat strike fighters and extend the range of the carrier air wing, and that’s what this system is intended to do.”

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. will go up against three defense giants – Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Boeing – vying for an engineering and manufacturing development contract that will be awarded next year for the MQ-25A Stingray, the Navy’s first carrier-based unmanned air vehicle.

While Boeing and Lockheed Martin have released partial images of its Stingray concept, both with fueling probes attached to external tanks, General Atomics has not released any imagery or artist’s rendition of its current concept for the MQ-25A Stingray.

Among the company’s portfolio of unmanned aerial systems is the Predator C Avenger. In 2010, General Atomics introduced its Sea Avenger variant, with folding wings, as a potential contender for the Navy’s proposed unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike system. At the time, UCLASS was envisioned as providing the capability for unmanned airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, rather than just serving as an aerial tanker to refuel carrier air wing aircraft.

Avenger, a jet UAV with a large internal weapons bay, modular design and six external hardpoints, already is envisioned for a range of wartime and non-combat missions. Could it still fit that in-flight tanking role, accommodating fuel storage and delivery as well as landing gear as outlined in the RFP?

In its draft RFP, the Navy set out two primary key performance parameters. It must be a sea-based tanker and it must be able to catapult off and recover aboard an aircraft carrier and integrate with the carrier’s systems, including its shipboard jet fuel and refueling systems.

The Stingray would pick up the aerial refueling mission currently done by F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet multi-mission jets, so it would ease the burden on those aircrews. About 20 to 30 percent of the strike fighter flight hours are spent on tanking missions, according to Navy estimates, so adding an unmanned tanker would relieve those air crews of that role and let them conduct other missions.

The Navy plans to field and operate the MQ-25A Stingray first with USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), both which would require upgrades including control stations and data links needed to support the system, officials said in the past.