The Navy will add hundreds of new warrant officer billets to its ranks over the next decade to fly a carrier-based drone that can refuel other aircraft midflight.
Navy Recruiting Command will begin accepting applications in October for warrant officer candidates who want to fly the MQ-25 Stingray, the service's first aircraft carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle. Officials say there will be 450 new warrant officer billets established over the next six to 10 years.
The warrant officers will be trained as aerial vehicle operators. They'll wear warrant officer bars on both collars and will be awarded aerial vehicle operator wings once they complete their flight training, like those worn by pilots and flight officers.
Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell, when announcing the new community, called the move "an exciting new chapter in the storied history of naval aviation."
The complexity of the Stingray "requires specialists rather than pilots from other type-model series," a fact sheet on the new warrant officer billets adds.
The aerial vehicle operators' career paths will be like those of naval aviators and naval flight officers, according to the fact sheet. Those selected will attend Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. Once they complete OCS, the warrant officers will move onto initial flight training with follow-on specialized training on the MQ-25.
The training is expected to take between 15 and 18 months. The warrant officers will need safety-of-flight technical proficiency, the fact sheet states, and the skills to conduct in-flight refueling.
It's still too early to know how many aerial vehicle operators the Navy will add in fiscal 2022, said Lt. Cmdr. Adam Cole, a spokesman in the chief of naval personnel's office. Baseline requirements to fill the positions are still being determined, he said.
Planning for the new community started last year. Now-retired Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller, then-commander of Naval Air Forces, decided the billets would be filled by warrant officers, the fact sheet states.
"We have been working with the aviation community managers and training schoolhouses to ensure we can field an officer corps ready to operate when the aircraft becomes operational in 2024," it adds.
Unlike traditional Navy chief warrant officers, who moved up from the enlisted ranks, the new drone operators will primarily be recruited at a younger age from the civilian population. Enlisted sailors still have a shot at moving into the new community, though.
"Interested fleet applicants should contact their career counselors for additional information regarding the OCS application process," the Navy administrative message states.
Navy leaders have called the Stingray a game changer for carrier operations. It'll free up manned tankers to perform other missions since the MQ-25 will be able to refuel deployed F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers and F-35C Joint Strike Fighters.
The Stingray can also fly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations.
The Navy plans to 20 Stingrays at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu, California. Boeing announced Dec. 9 that its MQ-25 test asset for the first time flew with an aerial refueling storage capsule.
The Navy projects it'll have nearly two dozen chief warrant officer 5s -- the most senior of the warrant officer ranks -- flying the new aircraft within six to 10 years. There will also be 113 warrant officer 4s, 135 warrant officer 3s, and 179 warrant officer 1s and 2s.
"By creating this under the warrant officer corps, the W-1s who enter will continue to rise up to become W-2s and so forth," the fact sheet states. "They will take on the same qualities as their warrant officer peers and be the Navy's go-to subject matter experts for aerial vehicle operation."
Some aerial vehicle operators could also operate the MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance drone while on shore duty. That would come after a warrant officer's initial Stingray sea tour, though, the fact sheet says.
This is the second time the Navy is bringing in new warrant officers, which were phased out decades ago. The service began adding warrant officers in its cyber field last year.