When the Navy’s Super Hornet fighter jets take off from an aircraft carrier, they are sometimes accompanied by squadmates loaded down with five extra tanks of fuel. A few hundred miles into the mission, these fighter-jet tankers will top off the tanks of their compatriots, boosting their range, before heading back.
This is complex, difficult work, and it strains their air frames. But by 2024, the Navy plans to have that work done instead by a sophisticated, autonomous drone called the MQ-25A Stingray, which will operate from carriers as a tanker and let the fighters do the fighting.
On a runway, the MQ-25A Stingray looks like half a plane. Its sleek, gray body, with narrow wings and condensed fuselage, gives it an appearance that is somewhere between a fictional starfighter and a real-world stunt jet with the cockpit lobbed off. Built by Boeing, the Stingray is a wholly uninhabited airframe, made to autonomously refuel other fighters mid-air. It’s crucial to the US Navy’s vision of war robots for the future, and it will soon be flying routine missions near California’s channel islands.
On March 16th, the Navy released its Unmanned Campaign Framework, outlining the present state of Navy robotics and how it intends to evolve those capabilities for the future. That same week, the Navy released its environmental impact assessment for basing the Stingray at Naval Base Ventura County in California. The future of the Navy is one filled with robots, and the Stingray will be crucial to seeing that vision realized.
The Navy expects the Stingray to enter service as part of normal operations in 2024, though the service has been less forthcoming on earlier milestones. When it does so, it will be the culmination of an 18-year long journey, an ambitious accomplishment nonetheless scaled down from the grand visions put forth for super capable flying robots in the mid-2000s.
The story of the Stingray is the story not just of the MQ-25A, but of the expansive vision for combat drones that preceded it, and of the future of robot fighters that will likely build on its success.
“The Stingray is emblematic of this push to grow the envelope of what uninhabited vehicles can do and their roles on the battlefield,” says Dan Gettinger, an analyst at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and an independent consultant. “We’ve had drones proposed for resupplying infantry [and] for carrying cargo—that isn’t new—but taking us to an air-to-air tanker mission is pretty novel in the history of drones.”
In the present, the Stingray has to prove that it can do three difficult tasks well, and do them repeatedly. Every aircraft carrier is a small runway, and launching from that short runway is often aided by a catapult, which hurls the plane into the sky with extra momentum. Landing on a carrier is harder, as the runway isn’t just small—it is also moving on water.
Human pilots train for this in simulators and then repeatedly while underway, mastering day landings and then moving on to night approaches. The Stingray will have to do it all autonomously, with algorithms and sensors supplanting human experience and knowledge.