Home » Aviation » Navy, Industry Looking for Design ‘Sweet Spot’ for MQ-25A Stingray


Navy, Industry Looking for Design ‘Sweet Spot’ for MQ-25A Stingray

X-47B Salty Dog 501 flies over USS Theodore Roosevelt on Aug. 17, 2014. US Naval Institute Photo

X-47B Salty Dog 501 flies over USS Theodore Roosevelt on Aug. 17, 2014. US Naval Institute Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Striking the balance between a tanker and a surveillance aircraft is an area of concern for Navy aviation planners and industry as they craft what will be the service’s first operational, carrier unmanned aerial vehicle, commander of Naval Air Forces said on Thursday.
Once tasked with being primarily an information, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft native to the carrier strike group, the Navy’s first push into unmanned fixed wing aviation – MQ-25A Stingray — will now fulfill a badly needed tanker role for the air wing in addition to the ISR mission, said Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker during a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and co-hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute.

The Navy has recently collected the results from a draft request for proposal for the Stingray program and is currently mulling the results from competitors Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Based on the responses, the Navy is refining the requirements for the full RfP expected next year. Affordability will be a key requirement to the program, USNI News understands.

The problem that industry and the service are dealing with is the ISR and the tanking mission inherently requires two very different types of aircraft shapes or planforms, Shoemaker said.

A primarily ISR UAV would be a high-endurance platform “probably not carry a lot of fuel, have a large wingspan,” to be an efficient platform, Shoemaker said.

For example, the highflying Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton UAV is built with a 131 foot wingspan and can fly unrefueled for up to 30 hours.

“If you’re going to be a tanker at range, you’re obliviously going to have to be able to carry a fair amount of fuel internal to the platform. That drives the different design for those two,” he said.
”So the industry is working on an analysis of where that sweet spot is to do both of those missions.”

Without mentioning specific companies, Shoemaker said there were some existing planforms that could serve as a baseline for the MQ-25A design.

“There are some shapes that they have designed already that help in that survivability piece of it. There’s a way to capitalize on existing designs in what we come to in terms of what we call a compromise solution but whatever MQ-25 ends up being but we’ve not said survivability is a priority this time around,” he said.
“But I think there’s ways to take advantage of some the other shapes already out there.”

The dividing line between the competitors will almost certainly be between a traditional wing-body-tail design and tailless variations of a delta wing planform.

In the lead up to the last bid for the carrier UAV – the Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program – designs from General Atomics and Boeing featured a wing-body-tail design while Lockheed and Northrop Grumman focused on tailless designs.

An artist’s concept of the General Atomics Sea Avenger taken from a display monitor. The design shows a wing-body-tail configuration US Naval Institute Photo

An artist’s concept of the General Atomics Sea Avenger taken from a display monitor. The design shows a wing-body-tail configuration US Naval Institute Photo

General Atomics’ Sea Avenger design is heavily influenced by Predator C Avenger, a jet powered evolution from the companies MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.

An artist's concept of the Lockheed Martin's bid for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS). Lockheed Martin Image

An artist’s concept of the Lockheed Martin’s bid for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS). Lockheed Martin Image

Lockheed Martin’s UCLASS marketing material used a design reminiscent of the company’s RQ-170 sitting on a carrier flight deck.

Rob Weiss, the head of Lockheed’s Skunk Works program, told USNI News earlier this year that a company could build a low-cost flying wing design for the MQ-25A program.

“We believe [that a flying wing] will be just as affordable as a wing-body-tail configuration. But a wing-body-tail will not be able [to meet] the requirements for penetrating strike in the future,” he said.
“You can take the flying wing and not put on all the coatings and other capabilities in that initial version and be competitive on the cost but have a growth path forward… that same path to use that vehicle design to operate in a [contested] environment.”

Northrop Grumman was thought to have submitted a variation of its cranked-kite design it used for the Navy’s X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) that proved a UAV could be launched and recovered from a carrier.

An artist's conception of Boeing's UCLASS offering taken as part of the company's display at the U.S. Navy League 2015 Sea Air Space Exposition. US Naval Institute Photo

An artist’s conception of Boeing’s UCLASS offering taken as part of the company’s display at the U.S. Navy League 2015 Sea Air Space Exposition. US Naval Institute Photo

The least is known publically about Boeing’s plan for MQ-25A. The company only exhibited a single piece of promotional material of a wing-body-tail design for UCLASS.

Regardless of the final composition of the Stingray airframe, the introduction of a new tanker to the carrier air wing will be a welcome relief to the service. Anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet sorties are for mission tanking and are placing unexpected stress on the airframes that have been in high demand in the last several years.

In addition to the planform discussions, the service is mulling how to integrate the MQ-25A into the air wing. Under consideration is pairing the Stingray with the sailors and aviators in the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye and C-2A Greyhound community. The relationship would be similar to the way the Sikorsky MH-60 community will be paired with the unmanned Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout and the Boeing P-8A Poseidon operators will be paired with the MQ-4C Triton.

  • Ed L

    Oh My Gosh, why just bring back a squadrons of S-3’s to serve as tanker detachments. let say 15 to 18 planes per squadron and 4 to 6 in a detachment for 5 or 6 years.

    • old school still works eh

    • John Locke

      Maybe it’s cheaper to train a high school grad AC to program the Stingray’s flight path than send a college grad through flight school to fly an S-3 and then throw piles of money at them to retain them.

      • tiger

        Bingo! The USAF is throwing bounus money at anybody to stay and fly drones. They have a major exit to airlines to fill. For the mission, flying racetracks in the sky and tanking; buy a drone.

    • Marauder 2048

      Just those minor issues of specific fuel consumption, L/D and structural weight of a 70’s era design compared to a clean sheet.

    • tiger

      got to keep those production lines busy….

  • delta9991

    Navy needs to be smart about how they write requirements for this. If they want a tanker with ISR, thats fine for now, but it must have the ability to spiral up into a long range, stealthy striker with minimal to minor changes. Get a design with plenty of growth in it and see where it goes from there.

  • RobM1981

    I like the idea of a low-observable tanker. It opens up all kinds of possibilities…

    • Steve Skubinna

      Like, for example, “Where is that damn tanker, we’re running low – THUD!”

    • Donald Carey

      Yeah – like running ‘shine.
      The name of one of the possible contractors made me laugh: General Atomics. (Think Fallout 4.)

  • publius_maximus_III

    “If you’re going to be a tanker at range, you’re obliviously going to have to be able to carry a fair amount of fuel internal to the platform. That drives the different design for those two,” he [Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker] said.

    —————————————————-

    With all due respect to the Admiral, taint necessarily so. The operative word in your false assumption is “internal”.

    When used for reconnaissance, the clean lines a stealthy aircraft would offer have legitimate purpose, and should be utilized. But when used for refueling other aircraft, typically at some distance from a theater of operations where threats would be minimal, maybe not.

    What about reintroducing the ancient concept of detachable wing tanks, fitted to either the top or bottom of the drone’s wings, temporary tanks which could be used to carry extra supplies of fuel to a thirsty squadron when being required for that purpose, or left off for clandestine missions? Or perhaps both, take fuel to the F-35’s, then drop the wing tanks to become stealthy and proceed to a reconnaissance mission from the rendezvous.

    Just some thoughts.

    • @USS_Fallujah

      Good point, part of the operational concept for the MQ-25 will be deciding if the tanker role is similar to the current use of F/A-18s w/ “Buddy Store” external tanks for use in close proximity to the CSG, or if you’re looking to have the tankers accompany the strike package to the edge of enemy air defenses to allow maximum combat radius for the strike package. You will also want some flexibility between the two, for instance the MQ-25s take off with buddy stores, top off the tanks of the whole package, then drop the external tanks when they approach the enemy’s detection umbrella, provide another tanking just prior to (or immediately after) the strike aircraft penetrate enemy defenses. Drop tanks are inexpensive, so you have flexibility to view them as disposable.

      • publius_maximus_III

        They make good pontoon boats, too… 😉

  • @USS_Fallujah

    Speaking of a “sweet spot” finding a balance between cost and observability is key too, “we’ve not said survivability is a priority this time around” hopefully doesn’t mean incorporating some low observability isn’t useful in completion of the ISR & Tanker mission, the harder it is to find the spy, or the tankers, the easier it is to maintain surprise for the entire strike package and reduce the target’s ability to disrupt the attacker’s operation by targeting (or even just threatening) the tanker support.

  • b2

    Manned or unmanned, re-use the S-3 Viking airframes. Being put away with half its service life demands redemption for use in this role….I’ve been saying this for years ad naseum.

    All this doublespeak and photos of plastic drones in the article doesn’t necessarily mean a platform to meet this requirement needs to look like those, does it?
    The S-3 comes with all the capabilities built in: Range, Endurance, ext/internal Payload, systems redundancy, dash/slow speed, real-estate for sensors, aero flexibility akin to a flying truck, and of course the Proven ability to land, takeoff, taxi, fold it self up and operate from the CVN, or ashore. Yes, and there are 70+ S-3Bs to choose from to prototype and capitalize- all for free, yes free! Read that sentence again- all facts. Think about it.

    IMO re-use is a “no-brainer” but seeing how I’ve been saying that for years and peeing into the wind, maybe I’m simply quixotic… the Air Boss and his predecessors/peers would just ignore or rehash the same old negatives (usually centered on voodoo logistics anecdotes) about this idea.

  • Randino

    Sorry, but the MQ-25A Stingray will hardly be “the Navy’s first push into unmanned fixed wing aviation”. There have been unmanned fixed-wing aircraft operating in the U.S. Navy for decades, with many thousands of hours to their credit. And that’s both land-based and shipboard systems.