It has been confirmed that Lockheed Skunk Works' design will compete with Boeing and General Atomics to build an unmanned, carrier-launched refueling plane for U. S. Navy. The Navy is currently evaluating the tanker design from Skunk Works, as well as a drone from Boeing's Phantom Works known as the T-1 and a joint project between Boeing Autonomous Systems and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems on another MQ-25 prototype.

The project itself is being realized under the Navy’s MQ-25 program.  The main goal of this program is to develop a refueling drone that can perform catapult-launched takeoffs and arrested landings on aircraft carriers. The tanker should be capable of passing 14,000 lbs. of fuel to other planes at a range of 500 nautical miles from the carrier. Such a tanker could significantly extend (approx. twice times)  the operating range of carrier-based fighter jets like the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-35C Joint Strike Fighter.

The Lockheed's single-engine flying wing is, generally speaking, very similar in appearance to B-2 Spirit stealth bomber (it has slightly longer wingspan). The drone however is compact and equipped with folding wings, to operate in the tight confines of an aircraft carrier flight deck.

The aircraft design appears to have a camera and possibly sensors on its nose, likely for a remote pilot to fly the drone. It's possible that the Lockheed MQ-25 design also calls for some autonomous systems, such as collision avoidance or an automatic recall to the carrier. Though the program does not call for stealth capabilities, Skunk Works' MQ-25 design's low profile could have modest stealth benefits and in can open new set of potential military capabilities in planning and conducting air operations.  1

Author: Daniel Kasprzycki
Source: Popular Mechanics, www.popularmechanics.com
Photo: Visualization of the MQ-25 stealth refueling drone performing refueling action for F-35 Lighting II stealth aircraft (Lockheed Martin)