Air to air refuelling is a game changer in aerial combat. It increases the range and strike capability of fighter aircraft. Though the Air Force has huge land based tankers for the job, the Navy, with its limited runway size on carrier, is devoid of this luxury. So the US Navy carries refuelling tanks, called aerial refueling store or ARS on the F/A 18 aircraft. This allows the Navy carrier based air to air refuelling, but takes out fighter aircraft from their primary duty.
To overcome these limitations and to utilise fighter aircraft optimally, the US Navy has embarked on a programme to develop and induct unmanned air to air refueller called the MQ-25. These aircraft are being developed by Boeing who already have an order for seven machines. The US Navy has a total requirement of 70 such aircraft.
As part of the programme, Boeing has developed the MQ-25 T1, prototype for studying the aerodynamics and behaviour and to develop the software. Recently, after 30 hours of developmental flights, the MQ-25 T1 flew with an ARS, the same which is carried by the F/A 18s. With these tests behind, the next set of tests would comprise testing the aerodynamics of the aircraft and the ARS at various points of the flight envelope. These will eventually progress to extension and retraction of the hose and drogue used for refueling.
“To see T1 fly with the hardware and software that makes MQ-25 an aerial refueler this early in the program is a visible reminder of the capability we’re bringing to the carrier deck,” said Dave Bujold, Boeing’s MQ-25 program director. “We’re ensuring the ARS and the software operating it will be ready to help MQ-25 extend the range of the carrier air wing.”