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Boeing refueling drone

Boeing's MQ-25 refueling drone prototype at its facility in north St. Louis County on April 5, 2018. The company is competing for a U.S. Navy contract to build as many as 72 of the aircraft to refuel fighter jets based on aircraft carriers. Photo by Jacob Barker, jbarker@post-dispatch.com

Boeing is likely just a few months away from learning whether it will build the U.S. Navy’s first unmanned aircraft carrier jet, a program that could prove far more important for the company’s St. Louis operations than just a few dozen planes.

“This will be the first program to get the carrier air wing into the unmanned age, and that’s a bell you’re not going to be able to unring,” said Sam LaGrone, editor of USNI News, the news arm of the nonprofit U.S. Naval Institute.

The Navy plans to buy up to 72 of the MQ-25 drones designed to serve as refueling tankers for the fighter jet squadrons aboard the service’s aircraft carriers. Those squadrons are currently dominated by Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters assembled at its facilities in north St. Louis County.

But in addition to being fighters, the Super Hornets are performing the job of airborne refueling on top of other duties, burning up valuable flight hours just as many are reaching the point where they need to be sent back to the plant for upgrades extending their lifespan.

For Boeing, which employs some 14,000 people in the St. Louis area, winning the contract is doubly important, said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank on security issues that counts Boeing among its contributors.

Though its Super Hornet production line in St. Louis has gotten a new lease on life with an uptick in both domestic and international orders, Boeing knows the program will wind down at some point. And drones are expected to grow in importance as the Navy begins integrating them into their operations.

“Boeing believes if it is successful, then aerial refueling is just the beginning,” Thompson said.

While Boeing won’t say yet where it will manufacture the MQ-25 drones, officials last week showed reporters the prototype built at its Phantom Works facilities in St. Louis. Testing has already started and if Boeing wins the contract, officials say it will be ready to fly soon after the award announcement.

“I don’t think Boeing has a site that would make more sense than St. Louis for building the drone,” Thompson said. “You want to do it in a place like St. Louis because all the skills and tooling are there already.”

The program to put an aerial refueling drone on the flight deck of carriers has evolved over more than a decade. It was first envisioned as a stealthy, deep penetrating strike fighter, then it was supposed to be an “eyes in the sky” surveillance plane, LaGrone said.

A couple of years ago, it was retooled again as a refueling drone to address the Navy’s growing need to relieve its aging Super Hornets from spending time performing that function. And now the Navy wants to move fast.

“They’re burning hours like crazy, that’s one of the reasons they’re starting to do those service life modifications” on Super Hornets, LaGrone said. “There is a definite problem, and here is a solution for it.”

Boeing is competing against Lockheed Martin and General Atomics for the MQ-25 contract. Despite making the X-47B unmanned combat aircraft for the Navy, Northrop Grumman dropped out of the competition last year. Northrop’s X-47B never made it into full production.

Donald Gaddis, who is heading Boeing Phantom Works’ MQ-25 program, said Boeing submitted its bid to the Navy in January. It generally takes the Navy 18 months to pick a supplier, he said, but it is “putting the pedal to the floor” and wants to decide in six months.

“My take is the Navy’s going to have this wrapped up by the summer,” Gaddis said.

Boeing is hoping the fact that it already has built a prototype — something its competitors haven’t done yet — gives it an edge in the competition. But General Atomics has a lot of experience with efficient unmanned aircraft, such as the Predator and Reaper drones, while Lockheed Martin has fresh experience developing carrier jets with its work on the new F-35C fighter for use by the Navy, LaGrone said. That makes it “a toss-up,” he said.

“Two years ago, I would probably have said it was most important for Boeing to win this, but because of the international orders and the Navy doubling down on Super Hornet buys, the situation is less dire for them,” he added.

Thompson, though, thinks the contract is Boeing’s to lose and is important for the company’s role in unmanned aircraft and the military’s industrial infrastructure in St. Louis. He noted the company is also angling to win the Air Force’s training jet, which is also expected to be awarded later this year. That plane would be assembled in St. Louis.

Between the Navy’s recent orders of Super Hornets and programs to retool older fighters so they last longer, Thompson said Boeing may need to boost its workforce further in St. Louis if it wins the new drone contract.

“If the Navy is going to pick the least expensive aircraft then I’m confident that Boeing will be the winner,” he said. “I just think that Boeing is determined to win in this competition.”

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Jacob Barker is a business reporter for the Post-Dispatch. 314-340-8291