For the first time ever, the US Navy has a carrier-based aircraft that does not require a pilot.

The service has taken delivery of the first MQ-25 Stingray autonomous refueller from manufacturer Boeing.

“We’ve delivered the first US Navy MQ-25 Stingray for testing,” Boeing said on 21 February. “The unmanned carrier-based refueller will now undergo a rigorous airframe integrity evaluation.”

Boeing also shared a photo of an unfinished MQ-25 showing an unpainted fuselage and wheel assemblies waiting to be attached to landing gear. The company will assemble MQ-25s at a 27,870 sq m (300,000 sq ft) facility near St. Louis, Missouri.

MQ-25 first delivery

Source: Boeing

Boeing delivered the first of 76 planned MQ-25 Stingrays to the US Navy in February

The latest fiscal year 2025 budget documents indicate the navy plans to acquire 76 Stingrays, including five test articles. At least 67 aircraft are projected to be operational models.

While the USA’s other military services have widely adopted uncrewed aircraft, the unique requirements of operating from the US Navy’s catapult assisted take-off/barrier arrested recovery aircraft carriers has limited UAS adoption in the service.

The MQ-25 represents the navy’s first operational carrier-based UAS, capable of launching and recovering in the same manner as the service’s crewed fighters.

However, unlike Boeing F/A-18s and Lockheed Martin F-35Cs, the MQ-25 will operate without a pilot onboard. The Stingray also eschews a remote pilot, using advanced flight control algorithms and planning software to execute missions and return to the carrier autonomously.

MQ-25s will take over the job of refuelling fighter aircraft at sea. That role is currently filled by F/A-18 Super Hornets, which are reassigned from combat duty to act as ad hoc tankers.

MQ-25 refueling 1 FA-18F

Source: Boeing

A test version of the MQ-25 has successfully refuelled the F/A-18, F-35C and Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye

The navy says the addition of the MQ-25’s tanker capability will help mitigate a shortage of available combat aircraft and reduce fatigue on the service’s Super Hornet airframes, extending the operational lifetime of the multi-role strike fighter.

A test version of the MQ-25 has successfully refuelled the F/A-18, F-35C and Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye. The USN plans to have Stingrays supporting air wings on both its Nimitz- and Ford-class aircraft carriers.

The Stingray will have a secondary duty of performing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, according to the navy.

“MQ-25 will have the ability to refuel all carrier based fixed wing aircraft capable of aerial refuelling and pass sensor data to other aircraft, naval vessels and ground forces,” the service says in its FY25 budget request.

A Boeing-owned test example of the MQ-25 completed the type’s its first flight in 2019 from MidAmerica St. Louis airport in Mascoutah, Illinois.

Boeing MQ-25 Stingray

Source: Boeing

The navy carried out deck handling tests with a Boeing-owned MQ-25 test aircraft in 2021 aboard the USS George H W Bush Nimitz-class aircraft carrier

The navy carried out deck handling tests using the same Boeing owned MQ-25 in 2021, aboard the USS George H W Bush Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

Under the latest schedule, the navy plans to reach initial operational capability on the MQ-25 fleet in the second half of 2026 – with 13 aircraft delivered.

In addition to the example delivered in February, the service has requested to acquire three MQ-25s in the yet-to-be-approved FY2024 budget and the latest FY2025 budget.

Current long-range plans call for three aircraft per year to be delivered through 2027, after which the annual procurement will start to ramp up. The latest budget documents forecast a buy of seven MQ-25s in 2029.