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The arrival of the first of its kind carrier-launched MQ-25 Stingray refueler drone is a highly sought after and anticipated development, as it is expected to literally double the combat radius and attack envelope for carrier-launched fighter jets.
In development for many years as a paradigm-changing platform intended to support the Carrier Air Wing, the MQ-25 Stingray will start formal procurement next year, according to the Navy’s 2023 budget request. The just released Navy budget allocates $16.8 billion for the MQ-25 Stingray, a first of its kind carrier-launched drone capable of refueling F-35Cs, F/A-18s and other carrier-operated air platforms.
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The arrival of the Stingray could not be soon enough for a variety of pressing reasons, such as the existence of China’s high-touted “carrier killer” DF-21D and DF-26 long range anti-ship missiles. The intent of these weapons is to hold carriers at risk for destruction from shore at unprecedented ranges up to or greater than 1,000 miles off shore. Should a carrier need to operate 1000 miles away from the area over which it seeks to project power, deck-launched attack aircraft could need refueling in order to make the journey, attack, and return safely.
Should an F-35C, for example, operate with a combat radius of 5-to-6 hundred miles, it would need to turn around before reaching its target area if carriers need to project power from beyond the 1,000-mile strike range of China’s anti-ship missiles. This is where the MQ-25 Stingray comes in, as it could enable an F-35C to travel 1,000 miles to its objective over land from off-shore, conduct its mission with sufficient dwell-time, and return to the carrier.
Operating the MQ-25, a Carrier Air Wing can still project massive power with an air attack campaign from previously impossible ranges offshore. This kind of capacity could help alter the balance of power in the Pacific in favor of US carriers, as they could hold mainland China at great risk without placing themselves within striking range of China’s “carrier-killer” anti-ship missiles.
The Stingray brings yet another advantage to high-threat maritime warfare because it does look a little stealthy. With a blended and rounded wing-body fuselage configuration and horizontal shape absent protruding vertical structures, the MQ-25 would certainly be much less vulnerable to detection by enemy radar. This means that not only can it reach at-sea locations much less accessible to land-launched refuelers, but it is also much more survivable than large, fixed-wing tanker aircraft likely to be extremely vulnerable to incoming enemy fire.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.