WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy plans to finalize its MQ-25 drone program sometime between 2018 and 2019. The Navy’s mission is to craft drones that can be flown off of aircraft carriers and refuel other aircraft mid-flight. 

The success of the program is dependent on the service’s ability to make a business case for 2018 deployment and a specific plan as to how the Navy will implement the MQ-25s.

C4ISRNET previously reported that MQ-25s could potentially embark on intelligence-gathering and surveillance missions should its refueling system be successful. The first MQ-25s are set to be deployed off of aircraft carriers Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H.W Bush in 2019, though it appears the Navy is looking more closely at a 2018 deployment date. 

Crucial to the success for MQ-25 operations is the integration of the Unmanned Carrier Aviation Mission Control System, or UMCS, within the Navy’s communications infrastructure. Its mechanics are based on its intersection with other Navy assets, specifically the Common Control System, or CCS, a software architecture under the Strike Planning and Execution Systems office of Navel Air Systems Command.

While CCS will take care of most of the common capabilities of UMCS, Navy planners indicate they will likely bring in third-party developers for vehicle-specific capabilities. 

The Government Accountability Office plans to spend upward of $2 billion for both the MQ-25 system and other potential unmanned fueling drone systems. Northop Grumman, General Atomics, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have all been awarded contracts for the MQ-25 system. 

According to The Washington Post, the X-47B aircraft was the first drone to be refueled midair. The X-47B was built by Northop Grumman and received its fuel via a drogue hose connected to an Omega K-707 tanker. 

In 2015, then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus stated his intention to normalize unmanned military aircraft, hoping the F-35 joint strikes fighter would be the last manned strike aircraft developed for the Navy. 

The Post subsequently indicated the drone’s midair refueling system is designed with the intent of crafting a drone fleet able to remain in flight for a extended period of time. 

Reuters reported that despite President Donald Trump’s intention to grow the Navy’s ship fleet from 275 to 350, a top naval officer indicated that congruent focus should be put on machine autonomy and unmanned vehicles, such as the MQ-25 and UMCS, in order to compete with Russia and China.