Boeing Co. has won a contract worth up to $805 million to build aerial re-fuelling tankers, according to an announcement from the US Navy.
Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin and San Diego-based General Atomics were also contenders for this contract which announced its requirements, “This fixed-price-incentive-firm-target contract with a ceiling price of $805.3 million provides for the design, development, fabrication, test, delivery, and support of four MQ-25A unmanned air vehicles, including integration into the carrier air wing for an initial operational capability by 2024.”
“As a company, we made an investment in both our team and in an unmanned aircraft system that meets the U.S. Navy’s re-fuelling requirements,” Boeing’s defense, space and security president and chief executive Leanne Caret said in a statement.
The aircraft that currently make up carrier air wings — the F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-35 Lightning II fighters — have relatively short ranges compared with the planes they replaced, making re-fuelling a higher priority. The MQ-25 program should extend the flying range of deployed fighter jets by providing easier mid-air re-fuelling options.
The contract gives Boeing its first substantial foothold in the U.S. military’s autonomous aircraft efforts. That market has been largely dominated by General Atomics, the manufacturer of the MQ-9 Reaper drone.
Boeing has released the following comment on today’s announcement:
Boeing was awarded the engineering and manufacturing development contract to provide four aircraft. Boeing plans to perform the MQ-25 work in St. Louis. Boeing has been providing carrier aircraft to the U.S. Navy for more than 90 years.
“This is an historic day,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson. “We will look back on this day and recognize that this event represents a dramatic shift in the way we define war fighting requirements, work with industry, integrate unmanned and manned aircraft, and improve the ‘lethality’ of the air wing — all at relevant speed. Everyone who helped achieve this milestone should be proud we’re here. But we have a lot more to do. It’s not the time to take our foot off the gas. Let’s keep charging.”
Most of the work on the tanker drones will be completed in St. Louis and 1.5% in San Diego, according to the Defense Department’s contract listing. Boeing will receive $79 million of the total award amount to start.
The MQ-25 will be launched via catapult from the decks of aircraft carriers. The initial contract is for four aircraft, but the Navy said it eventually plans to spend $9.5 billion to produce 72 tankers. Research and development was estimated to cost an additional $3.8 billion.
It is believed that concerns about wear and tear on Super Hornets and their crew currently handling re-fuelling duties, along with fighter tasks also prompted demand for unmanned replacements. When operational, MQ-25 will improve the performance, efficiency, and safety of the carrier air wing and provide longer range and greater persistence tanking capability to execute missions that were not performed till date.