So the Navy had to accede to pressure to adopt the F-35, but managed to keep the X-47B in service as an airborne refueling platform.
This is actually quite brilliant. Even if it isn’t optimal, it’s a good move by the Navy. Does everyone remember the simulated fleet of 500 F-35s taking on the east coast of China? Remember how China won in that war game?
To refresh your memory, the Chinese military targeted airborne refueling tankers, those big, slow, high RCS return signals in the sky, and then waited for the F-35s to turn around to go back to carriers and land based fields. Once that big, hot engine was facing mainland China the heat seeking missiles went into the fight, and long range missile bombardment of airfields and carriers commenced. China won because the attack on China could be seen because the refueling aircraft (and I assume other aircraft like AWACs) were easy to spot coming.
Not so much any more, the newly designated RAQ-25 “Stingray” is stealthy. Originally designed for the deep strike mission it will fuel the Super Hornets doing deep strike (and the Super Hornet may not be VLO like the F-35C variant it does have a much reduced radar cross section compared to legacy 4th gen fighters, how much reduction is classified though). Some have criticized that the stealth of the drone will be destroyed once the fueling lines are deployed, but I don’t think that’s the case. Going from the size of a pebble to the size of a small bird isn’t going to raise too many red flags unless the RADAR operator is really, really on his/her game.
If the USAF were smart, they would look to push the “new” B-21 stealth bomber into a stealth fueler option as well. It isn’t hard to build a stealthy airframe that only has one job (hence the reason why the F-117 was relatively cheap), so if the USAF is serious about doing stealthy deep strike, a stealth tanker doesn’t seem like such a far fetched concept.
It will also increase the number of big stealthy airframes (and for the Navy lower the cost of stealth drones) so when they do want another deep bomber, it’s an easy transition in payload even if the delivery system is a bit different.
So while it isn’t the outcome that was most beneficial to the Navy (canceling the F-35C and getting a whole bunch of X-47Bs) it does give the Navy something it needs now, and will need in the future, and keeps the program from being killed by Lockheed Martin.