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Boeing to build 70+ of the US Navy’s first ever aerial refueling drones in Illinois

The Boeing MQ-25 T1 transfers fuel to a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet June 4, marking the first time in history that an unmanned aircraft has refueled another aircraft. (Boeing photo by Kevin Flynn, Released)

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin called it a “field of dreams.”

He was referring to a cornfield in the southeast corner of MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, where defense contractor The Boeing Co. plans to build a 300,000-square-foot production facility to make the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft-refueling drones.

Durbin (D-Illinois) was one of several government and company officials who appeared at a news conference in Mascoutah last Friday to announce the project.

Boeing expects to produce more than 70 of the MQ-25 Stingrays for the U.S. Navy at a potential rate of one per month, beginning in 2024, according to David Bujold, program manager.

“It’s a combination of what can the factory do, which is very flexible; how much money the Congress allocates and when; and what the Navy wants,” he said in an interview.

Bujold noted that Boeing also may be producing MQ-25s for customers in other countries at the facility.

$200 million investment

The Mascoutah project was made possible in part by an EDGE (Economic Development for a Growing Economy) agreement, according to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Boeing will receive tax credits valued at $8.7 million while promising to invest at least $200 million over 15 years under the agreement’s terms.

The company plans to move 150 jobs from the St. Louis region and create 150 new jobs for engineers, mechanics and support staff once the facility opens. That was a focus of comments by St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern at the news conference.

“Three hundred full-time jobs that are going to pay close to $100,000 a year is no small feat in this day and age, and we credit our great governor for being the jobs governor for Southern Illinois,” he said.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced that his administration also has allocated $57 million for MidAmerica as part of the Rebuild Illinois Capital Plan, a $45 billion package to improve roads, bridges, universities, early childhood centers and state facilities over six years.

The plan is being funded by increases in taxes for gas, cigarettes and vehicle registrations and titles, as well as the 2019 gaming expansion.

“Some of that is about investing in the terminal,” Pritzker said of the MidAmerica funding. “Some of that is making sure that we’re investing in the basic infrastructure (such as airplane parking and taxiways).”

‘Visionary leadership’

The MQ-25 production facility will be Boeing’s second factory at MidAmerica. The first produces components for fighter jets, commercial airplanes and military helicopters.

The company is expanding its presence at the airport because local leaders have shown flexibility, efficiency, innovation and vision, according to Kristin Robertson, vice president and general manager of Autonomous Systems, Boeing Defense, Space & Security.

“Thanks to St. Clair County’s visionary leadership and to this airport, we have found the right environment in which to grow our autonomous (unmanned) systems business for the future,” she said at the news conference.

Boeing already has begun moving dirt for the new facility. It will be built on 34 acres that the company is leasing from MidAmerica, which is owned by St. Clair County. The airport is east of Scott Air Force Base.

Boeing’s leased land is near Illinois 4, just south of the airport’s entrance. The company expects the facility to be completed by 2024.

Doubling combat range

Boeing was awarded an $805 million development contract by the U.S. Navy in 2018 to engineer and produce the first four MQ-25s. The carrier-based, unmanned aircraft (tankers) can refuel fighter jets in the air, doubling their combat range, according to Bujold.

Last year, the U.S. Navy ordered three more MQ-25s for $84.7 million. There’s one test aircraft, known as T1, operating today. The other six are being made at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

The T1 performed aerial refueling of an F/A-18 Super Hornet in June, an E-2D Hawkeye in August and an F-35C Lightning II earlier this month in test missions that originated at MidAmerica.

The St. Clair County Public Building Commission, which oversees the airport, approved an agreement Aug. 31 to allow Boeing to develop the 34 acres and lease it for 20 years.

The agreement includes an option for three 20-year renewals, totaling 80 years of possible tenancy. Boeing will pay $65,000 in rent the first year, then about $450,000 annually, according to MidAmerica Director Bryan Johnson.


(c) 2021 the Belleville News-Democrat

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