The US Navy just used this pilotless plane to refuel a manned aircraft carrier fighter jet for the first time

MQ-25 refuels F/A-18
An MQ-25 refuels an F/A-18.

  • A drone has refueled a US Navy fighter jet for the first time, the Navy said Monday.
  • Boeing’s MQ-25 provided refueled an F/A-18 Super Hornet on Friday.
  • The drone will extend the reach of carrier-based fighters as the Navy changes the way it fights.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

An unmanned tanker aircraft has successfully refueled a US Navy carrier-based fighter jet for the first time, the Navy announced Monday.

A Boeing MQ-25 Stingray test drone refueled an a F/A-18 Super Hornet on Friday near MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois, demonstrating that the unmanned aircraft “can fulfill its tanker mission,” the Navy said.

MQ-25 Stingray refuels F/A-18 Super Hornet
An MQ-25 refuels an F/A-18.

The F/A-18 flew at operationally relevant speeds and altitudes as close as 20 feet behind the unmanned aerial-refueling tanker. The MQ-25 test asset then extend the hose and drogue from the Aerial Refueling Store and plugged into the fighter to transfer the fuel.

Rear Adm. Brian Corey, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, said in a statement that the “MQ-25 will greatly increase the range and endurance of the future carrier air wing.”

The MQ-25 will be the world’s first operational carrier-based drone. It is expected to not only provide additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to Navy aircraft carriers but also significantly extend the reach of carrier-based fighter jets, a necessity given the changing capabilities of America’s rivals.

China’s growing arsenal of anti-ship missiles with the potential to threaten US naval assets has forced the Navy to think carefully about how it might employ its carriers in a great-power conflict.

With aerial refueling drones like the MQ-25, which can carry up to 15,000 pounds of fuel, the Navy can engage an enemy at a distance without putting its carriers at risk. In addition to supporting F/A-18s, the MQ-25 will also be able to support EA-18G Growler electronic-warfare aircraft and F-35C Lightning II fighter jets.

Capt. Chad Reed, program manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation program office (PMA-268), said that the recent test was “a significant and exciting moment for the Navy and shows concrete progress toward realizing MQ-25’s capabilities for the fleet.”

Navy MQ-25 refueling drone
Boeing and the US Navy flew the MQ-25 with an aerial-refueling store for the first time on December 9, 2020.

The US Navy awarded Boeing a $805 million contract for the MQ-25 aerial refueler in August 2018, and the unmanned aircraft made its first flight one year later in September 2019.

The MQ-25 flew for the first time with the aerial refueling hardware required for its primary mission in December. The latest test followed 25 T1 flight that tested the aircraft and the refueling technology, as well as simulations.

Boeing said that flight testing will continue and that later this year a test asset will be sent to Norfolk, Virginia, for deck handling trials on a Navy aircraft carrier.

Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said in a statement that “this history-making event is a credit to our joint Boeing and Navy team that is all-in on delivering MQ-25’s critical aerial refueling capability to the fleet as soon as possible.”

The US Navy intends to integrate the MQ-25 into a carrier air wing and achieve initial operational capability by 2024. It also plans to make sure all Nimitz- and Ford-class aircraft carriers are MQ-25 capable.