Boeing recently offered a first glimpse of its newest military aircraft, a large, stingray-shaped drone it hopes will win an intense Navy competition to build an unmanned aircraft capable of landing on an aircraft carrier.
Drones have been a vital part of the Pentagon’s arsenal for years, but the competition for a Navy carrier-based version, dubbed the MQ-25, that can refuel jet fighters in midair would mark a significant advance in the technology — and become another sign how the military is increasingly integrating robots into the way it fights.
In addition to Boeing, two of the Pentagon’s top suppliers, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin, are vying for a contract to build as many as 76 of the vehicles that would become operational in the mid 2020s.
Bids are due Wednesday, setting the stage for a high-stakes competition in 2018. Though the Navy has not yet released the value of the contract, an earlier incarnation of the effort — in which the drones would both serve as refueling aircraft and have attack capabilities — would have been worth $3 billion through 2022. As conceived now, the aircraft would not be configured to strike targets.
In recent years, the Pentagon has shown that drones are not just capable of flying from airstrips around the world, but from sea as well. In 2013, Northrop Grumman’s X-47B became the first drone to take off and land from an aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, in a flight that one top Navy official said marked “an inflection point in history on how we will integrate manned and unmanned aircraft on carrier flight decks in the future.”