Boeing's late-summer victory in the bidding war to develop an unmanned refueling tanker for the U.S. Navy offers far more than an initial $805 million in revenue.

It gives the manufacturer a new aircraft-development program that has the potential to become a franchise business, revitalizing a defense unit that relies heavily on production of older models after losing the lucrative F-35 fighter to Lockheed Martin and the B-21 long-range bomber to Northrop Grumman.

"It's a big research and development program, and a big win within unmanned systems," Roman Schweizer, an analyst with Cowen Washington Research Group, told the Washington Examiner. "Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and probably Lockheed, in the classified realm, have been the 800-pound gorillas, and this gives Boeing a big anchor in that business."

While the initial agreement, which covers development of four MQ-25 Stingray drones that can refuel fighters in mid-flight, is relatively modest, the Navy has projected spending $3.5 billion through 2023, which includes buying prototypes in the 2019 and 2020 budget years, Schweizer said.

The program may ultimately expand to 72 drones at a cost of $14 billion, with less than half that amount devoted to research and development, the Navy said. That would preserve Chicago-based Boeing's competitive advantage in building carrier-borne aircraft for decades.

The planemaker's F/A-18 Super Hornet and the EA-18 Growler derivative "make up the bulk of the Navy's carrier air wing" currently, but Lockheed is encroaching with the F-35 joint strike fighter, the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history.

The first drones are expected to be operational in August 2024, according to the U.S. Defense Department. Boeing, which intends to do the work in St. Louis, was one of three companies that submitted bids for the project; its rivals were General Atomics, Lockheed and, initially, Northrop.

If Lockheed had won the MQ-25, "it would have cemented its position as the builder of 'next-gen' naval aviation platforms, while Boeing would have been relegated to manufacturing fleet workhorses," Schweizer said.

That wasn't Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg's vision. Boeing has invested heavily in "capturing future franchise programs," he told investors in July. In addition to the Stingray, "we're also leveraging capabilities from across the enterprise" for a new intercontinental ballistic missile system for the Air Force and the T-X trainer, he said.

The T-X is a two-seat craft for Air Force pilots designed to replace the aging T-38 fleet built by Northrop Grumman from 1961 through 1972, some 500 of which are still in service. The jets have been used to train more than 72,000 Air Force pilots, and Northrop designed a replacement wing to extend the plane's lifespan through at least 2020.

As for the Stingray, the Navy wants the drone not only to stretch the combat range of fighters but also to let carriers launch them farther away from targets.

The Navy envisions the unmanned aircraft, which will free additional fighters for simultaneous military strikes by curbing refueling delays, as a crucial component of its force. Service leaders are using an accelerated acquisition program designed to trim five to six years from the development timeline.

"We brought industry in very quickly and leveraged the technology that had been developed to date so that we could move quickly to production," Adm. John Richardson, the Chief of Naval Operations, told Republican Sen. Roy Blunt during a hearing earlier this year that covered plans for the drone.

The Navy conducted the first launch and recovery of an unmanned drone from an aircraft carrier in 2013. Two years earlier, a service team completed the first landing of an unmanned aircraft on the carrier USS Eisenhower, using a modified F/A-18 that also carried a human pilot.

Carrier landings are notoriously challenging since the landing strip is not only moving, but considerably smaller. Pilots rely on a tailhook built into jets to snag one of four high-strength retaining wires that halt the aircraft.

“As a company, we made an investment in both our team and in an unmanned aircraft system that meets the U.S. Navy’s refueling requirements,” Leanne Caret, the new head of Boeing's defense business, said when the award was announced. “The fact that we’re already preparing for the first flight is thanks to an outstanding team who understands the Navy and their need to have this important asset on carrier decks.”

Since the drone contract was a fixed-price arrangement that doesn't offer latitude for higher-than-planned expenses, Boeing had an advantage over competitors, Schweizer noted.

Its lucrative commercial-aircraft business provides a substantial cushion for aggressive bids for military projects such as the MQ-25, a "clean-sheet" or unique system tailored to the Navy's needs.

While there are risks with such a strategy, Boeing is capable of absorbing them and its investors generally care far more about the commercial business than the defense unit, Schweizer noted.

The commercial business, which includes the single-aisle 737 — an aviation-industry workhorse — and the jumbo 747, accounted for 61 percent of Boeing's $93.4 billion in revenue last year.

While the defense, space and security unit garnered just $21.1 billion, the Stingray award gives it a cutting-edge program that engineers may be able to modify for other U.S. service or foreign militaries, Schweizer said.

"It is a big program," he said. "It certainly could have multi-decade implications."