The Boeing [BA] MQ-25A Stingray test asset arrived on the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) aircraft carrier for non-flight handling tests on Nov. 30, the Navy said last week.

The testing is due to occur over multiple days to provide an early evaluation of MQ-25 operating in a shipboard environment, Navy spokeswoman Jamie Cosgrove told Defense Daily. The test asset is designated T-1.

The Navy did not disclose how long the testing aboard the Bush will last.

“It will involve T-1 being driven around the flight deck while at sea to check its handling qualities, and the functionality and capabilities of the deck handling system. This will include taxiing into and connecting to the catapult, clearing the landing area and various other maneuvers,” she continued.

Last month, the Navy and Boeing conducted deck handling ground tests of the T-1, using painted lines to section areas of a carrier’s flight deck to test maneuvering the aircraft on the ship (Defense Daily, Nov. 24).

Cosgrove confirmed the testing will also involve the pier-side setup of a prototype Ground Control Station from Lockheed Martin [LMT] in the Unmanned Air Warfare Center aboard CVN-77.

“This provides both [Lockheed Martin] and the Navy a unique opportunity to assess design constraints driven by shipboard installation and facilitates early learning through the conduct of fleet familiarization and capturing feedback on the human systems interface,” Cosgrove said.

She noted this testing does not mean the Bush will be the first carrier to get the completed MQ-25A, but the Navy will determine the first carrier to deploy the Stingray at a later date since operational carrier schedules “continually change.”

Last June, the Navy and Boeing conducted the first unmanned tanker to manned aircraft aerial refueling using the T-1 and an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, demonstrating it can fulfill the stated role using a standard probe-and-drogue method (Defense Daily, June 7).

At the time, the Navy said later this year they would proceed from further ground-based tests to deck handling demonstrations onboard an aircraft carrier.

The T-1 followed the Super Hornet test with refuelings of a Northrop Grumman [NOC] E-2D Advanced Hawkeye in August (Defense Daily, Aug. 19) and a Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter in September (Defense Daily, Sept. 14).

As of September, the T-1 conducted 36 flights over 120 flight hours. 

The Navy expects the first engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) MQ-25A, based on the T-1, to be delivered by the fall or winter of 2022, which will then proceed to ground and later carrier based tests. That initial EMD aircraft will be the first model testing using carrier-style launches and recoveries from the ground at Patuxent River, Md., and Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division Lakehurst before moving to additional carrier-based tests.

The Navy awarded Boeing an $805 million EMD contract in 2018 covering the first four MQ-25 aircraft. The Navy plans to reach initial operational capability by 2025. The Navy plans to procure 72 total Stingrays to free up Super Hornets currently used in a tanking role on carriers. (Defense Daily, Aug. 30, 2018).

The service is placing a heavy emphasis on the MQ-25, seeing it as a way to transition more unmanned aircraft to aircraft carriers to help shape the future carrier air wing.

Last March, Vice Adm. James Kilby, then-Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfighting Requirements and Capabilities, told the House Armed Services Committee that Navy leaders think it can make upward of 40 percent of the aircraft in the air wing as unmanned aircraft and transition beyond that in time.

“Let’s figure out how to handle it in the airwing, let’s move to ISR, maybe electronic attack, strike, and then other things as complexity grows across that mission set. But I think the MQ-25 will most certainly provide promise to us because it will be able to perhaps exceed the endurance of a manned aircraft,” Kilby said (Defense Daily, March, 18).

Kilby has since become deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command.