Home » Aviation » Skunk Works Head: Latest Navy MQ-25A Requirements Pushing Competitors to Redesign Offers

Skunk Works Head: Latest Navy MQ-25A Requirements Pushing Competitors to Redesign Offers

Lockheed Martin MQ-25A bid. Lockheed Martin Photo

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Navy’s latest revised list of requirements for its carrier-based unmanned aerial tanker will likely push all four competitors to redesign their bids, the head of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Work division said on Tuesday.

The Navy’s latest direction for the MQ-25A Stingray would further minimize information, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) requirements for the airframe and further reduce strike as a mission, Rob Weiss, the head of the company’s internal aviation research and development arm, said at Lockheed Martin’s annual media day.

“The Navy came out with these requirements perhaps in the last six to eight months, and they still haven’t given us the final system requirements document – that should be coming any day – with specifically what they want this tanker to do,” Weiss said.
“From our viewpoint, the requirements, as they are currently unfolding, are going to require a new design from all of the competitors. It’s now very tanker-focused. We’re looking at what those requirements are, there will probably be a follow-up capability – some ISR it could do and potentially some strike – but it’s very much focused on tanking.”

Along with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Boeing are competing for the first operational carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle.

As part of his presentation, Weiss teased an image of Lockheed Martin concept that showed a view of a wing with an aerial refueling tank hanging from a pylon and trailing a probe-and-drogue fuel line to an F/A-18E Super Hornet.

Currently, the Navy refuels its carrier aircraft with its Super Hornet fleet. The tanking mission accounts from anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of Super Hornet sorties, further exacerbating the ongoing tactical aviation shortfalls in the service.

That demand – in part – is pushing the Navy to get a tanking UAV into service as soon as possible rather than creating a more multi-mission platform, USNI News understands.

“If the requirements were about penetrating ISR in contested airspace – be it ISR or strike – you would need an airplane that looks different than the concept you’ve got up there with pylons and so forth doing tanking,” he said.

Last year, Weiss suggested the Navy pursue a more stealthy tailless flying wing design that could be adapted to higher-end missions later.

“If you start with a vehicle shape that will allow it to penetrate into a contested environment, you can get a low-cost tanking capability upfront without putting all the capability into that vehicle. … You can do it at low cost but stay on that same path to use that vehicle design to operate in a penetrating environment,” Weiss said in 2016.

Later last year, Commander of Naval Air Forces Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker said industry was struggling with designs that could blend the requirements of an ISR platform and a tanker. The Air Boss said the two missions lent themselves to two different types of platforms.

A primarily-ISR UAV would be a high-endurance platform that would “probably not carry a lot of fuel, have a large wingspan,” to be an efficient platform, Shoemaker said in August.
“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. So the industry is working on an analysis of where that sweet spot is to do both of those missions.”

However, based on Weiss’s comments, the Navy’s latest revision to the requirements seem to push all the competitors to a wing-body-tail design for Stingray rather than the flying wing concept both Lockheed and Northrop were thought to be developing for the MQ-25A program.

“The requirements have been defined to be a tanker, so you really don’t want to go with a tailless design if your primary requirement is associated tanking,” he said.

General Atomics and Boeing both have proposed wing-body-tail for their MQ-25A proposal in the past, USNI News understands.

Following a draft Request for Proposal issued last year directly to the four competitors, the Navy is expected to issue the final RFP this summer, with an expected contract award in 2018, Weiss said.

The MQ-25A is the Navy’s follow-up program to the service’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) UAV program that developed an aircraft primarily for ISR. However, the program was restructured following a 2015 Office of Secretary of Defense review led by Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, and it became a tanking-first concept that became MQ-25A.

While the four competitors are developing the airframe, the Navy is developing the ground control station and the data link packages for the MQ-25A that remain largely unchanged from the UCLASS program.

  • Marjus Plaku

    really NAVY?
    why not try to go for both if you can. i understand cruise missiles can be a whole lot more stealthy and penetrating but still, unmanned strike is the future why drag your feet so stubbornly when presented a chance not to do so.

    • NavySubNuke

      I’m happy to see the navy adopting a crawl, walk, run approach on this. Starting with a limited capability and then spiraling in to more capable designs might cost “more” on paper since you won’t have a UAV capable of refueling, ISR, and strike until the MQ-25C arrives but that cost is likely lower and the time to arrive at the 25C likely shorter and the actual cost likely lower than if the Navy had tried to do all three in one shot.
      Trying to do it all in one step leads to higher risks, more problems and ultimately higher costs. The FORD carrier program is a perfect example of the dangers of trying to leap forward in one shot.

      • USNVO

        Yes and No. Spiral development is great if your technology is in varying states of readiness, you have a good idea of the final goal but no real commitment to how to get there, and your cycle time is fast enough to prevent stagnation.
        The FORD is a primary example of where multiple changes are required. The build cycle is so long iwould take 30+ years to get to your final design and you would have 3 one ship classes. Yeah, that’s a great idea, why do you think they haven’t messed with the NIMITZ in 40 years? Because they did not want anymore Enterprises.
        1. The hull, island, and elevator changes are fairly easy but nothing you want to just add to a ship that takes 5+ years to build and also something you want to do only once since every future change makes multiple changes. For instance, the hull design is significantly different if you have EMALS or a Steam catapult. So even using the same reactors require dramatic reengineering to change from electricity to steam.
        2. If you go to EMALS, then you need new electrical system anyway so it is a logical point to change all your elevators, auxillaries, etc. if you do that, then it is also a logical place to insert all the other technology. Bite the bullet, do it once because your next chance is 5-8 years later and you just drag out the pain. Imagine the FORD repeated three times.
        The Navy determined that using three ships not only was more expensive (yes, even with the new price) but it also took 20 years to reap the benefits and added 2 new one of a kind ships.

        Doing everything at once on the FORD made sense. It is painful, but the alternative would be far worse. Spiral development will work on the MQ-25 because the system will be largely platform, and manufacturer for that matter, agnostic. You can roll out a completely different airframe for each mission but the really expensive part is the control system and that will be common.

        • muzzleloader

          Speaking of the Ford, have you read the latest article in USNI news about the ship? The way it reads, the issues with the emals and power systems are such that you wonder if this ship will ever reach operational status.

          • USNVO

            I don’t, if you remember the introduction of 1200psi steam plants or gas turbines, you see similar issues. It is new technology, experience that people had with previous iterations don’t always apply, both on the operational side and the production side. I am confident they will get everything working but not on the schedule that the majority expects. Stuff happens, only ignorant people expect perfection on the first go round.

            Take for instance the issue of the inability to work on the catapults during flight ops. Considering EMALS should be more reliable, is this really so bad? Or consider, half of the day does not involve flight ops and electrical is vastly easier to work on than steam. As the report finally acknowledges, until they actually test it and use it in the real world, no who knows what the impact is.

            As a similiar issue, when solid state 400hz generators were introduced, they were much more difficult to access and fix than the older 400hz motor-generators. It was a good thing they never seemed to fail. Or, in a more recent issue, remember how “experts” at NAVAIR showed that the F-35C would never be able to trap without major redesign of the aft mold line because it’s Tailhook to MLG distance was different than a F-18? How did that work out by the way?

            There are numerous issues with new technology. On the Polar Star, the CPP blades broke off and required replacement with beefier bolts, failure rates on 1200psi plants were way higher than 600psi plants, the Spuance class had huge problems with reduction gears as well as cracking issues, MCMs still have incredible issues with their engines, and the list goes on. This is just part of the issue with introduction of new technology. And it doesn’t stop there, the other services and the civilian world has legions of similiar cases.

            Which just serves to point out the fact that spiral development was not the way to go on the FORD. You would be chasing a whole slew of single ship issues, many of which would be changed anyway on the next iteration, but you would still have to do a one time fix. Better to get it done upfront and be able to make fixes for all ships of the class at once. Painful, but better than death by a hundred cuts later.

      • Blain Shinno

        Here is what I don’t understand.

        The cancellation of the A-12 program was a lost opportunity. The failure to replace the A-6 had a detrimental affect on the reach of the carrier wing. Over twenty years later the Navy is still dealing with the issue.

        It seems the MQ-25A is more about freeing up Super Hornets from the tanker mission than addressing the range issue. I understand that integrating unmanned a/c into carrier operations is little bit more difficult than land based operations, but why doesn’t the Navy develop an X-47B class aircraft with similar attack capabilities to the Air Force’s Predator B? Use a flying wing planform in order to optimize range and reduce radar signature. The main focus should be to keep cost down and to field the aircraft in less than five years. Even if its initially capability was limited to attacking fixed targets I think it would be a valuable asset to the carrier air wing.

  • @USS_Fallujah

    This is going to end up looking a lot like an unmanned S-3, which isn’t all bad IF they can actually get this to the fleet by the end of the decade. At least then you can take workload off the F-18s in the fleet and provide a proof on concept for unmanned carrier operation. Once this is on it’s way down the pike though, they need to look to a follow on program that will either be a penetrating bomber or (my preference) a semi-stealthy Arsenal Plane (and tanker?) to off-board the F-35C’s magazine with SOWs.

    • NavySubNuke

      I’d like to see them add an extra step in there just to continue the proof of concept and further refine the CONOPs and the automated control algorithms (which is absolutely necessary if we intend to use these against a peer or near peer who will be jamming GPS and SATCOM).
      An MQ-25B that retains the tanker function but also allows for long range autonomous ISR seems like a good incremental step for the design team to move to once they finish the detailed design on the 25A and put it into production.
      A follow on 25C that would serve as a standoff arsenal type bomber could then follow again as soon as the design team finishes off the -B variant and gets it into production.
      Finally the fourth generation, which will be worked on by a team of experienced folks who have worked on this for over a decade by sustaining one generation of development after another can tackle the really hard challenges of a penetrating bomber variant including incorporating automated SEAD and air-to-air combat capability.
      Spiraling in and maintaining a consistent design team won’t be cheap and won’t be “fast” on paper but you will have a much better chance of actually delivering the necessary capability at a reasonable cost rather than dealing with a decade plus of delays and billions in cost over runs by trying to do it all at once.

      • @USS_Fallujah

        Concur, crawl, walk, run. No more Zumwalt and LCS fiascos, please.

        • muzzleloader

          Or Ford class.

          • @USS_Fallujah

            At least when finished Ford will be a fighting ship, I’m not sure anyone has a good idea on what Zumwalts will ever do, and we know what the LCS will be. Ford is a great example of why incremental change is best, had they gone with the new powerplant & distribution system and revised deck layout and left room for the other technological developments for future ships (and backfit?) they’d be much farter along for a lot less money.

  • muzzleloader

    There are lots of S-3’s parked in the desert with lots of frame life left and the TF-34 is still alive and well. Why not bring them back as airwing tankers as an interim measure? The wear and tear on the Hornet fleet could be alleviated sooner than later.

    • b2

      Aye, Muzzleloader, an actually “achievable” idea I applaud Sir.. However, look at the picture attached to this article for your reason, why not…

      The expectations (USNI and everywhere else) are that the “vehicle” be some kind of plastic machine- looking craft like a huge “Predator” or steroidal “UCAV” drone… Of course these are “great expectations” based on “hope and change” (NA visions…) not existing non-developmental “capability”. Only the S-3B Viking meets or exceeds all the requirements, as is, right out of the box and is fully “carrier suitability compatible” (a very important consideration)… What’s supremely ironic here, is that the head of the LM Skunk Works, Rob Weiss was an S-3 pilot once and knows that to be the case I am sure. 🙂

      You are right, the vehicle is right there at AMARG in numbers that could be re-used in a unmanned role ASAP for tanking (mission/recovery), proven ISR persistence, and actually carries “real” ASUW weapons like SLAM-ER/HARPOON that can really sink a ship… However, old stuff doesn’t sell as well as developmental, big $$, plastic drones…. IE, the USG would have to recommend the S-3 as the vehicle in their evolving requirements releases…

      They (NALG) won’t do it though.. Makes them look bad for having retired the Swiss Army Knife a decade early…..That shiny object is always just over the horizon…

  • Blain Shinno

    I thought flying wings by their nature have a greater internal volume – which can be devoted to fuel – than wing, body, tail designs? I also wouldn’t think a flying wing, or cranked arrow design like the X-47B, would preclude the use of pylons to carry external fuel tanks or a drogue and hose.

    I’d like to see how much fuel the Navy would like the MQ-25 to carry in order to off load. It will need a good amount of thrust to carry a meaningful load.

    And what about the concept of operations? Is its role to stay close to the carrier or is it designed to extend the reach of the air wing?

    I am of the opinion that they should proceed down the track of some type of a flying wing that will eventually be developed into an unmanned strike aircraft.

  • Donald Carey

    After reading this piece, it looks to me like the Navy’s pilot fraternity is desperately trying to maintain their monopoly. The less this new device can do, the less it threatens them (after all, being a tanker pilot isn’t the most glamorous role).

  • b2

    Some Navy “tanker” realities, Mr. Carey you may not know or may have forgotten:

    The USN, carrier specific tanker mission conducted overhead (termed overhead/recovery tanker) the CVN, is airborne day/night and available (IE, the tanker checks good or “sweet”) to cover every TACAIR event that flies during the carrier ops day cycle. They cannot do another mission concurrent and carry no weapons but all fuel…This mission is as critical and fundamental to carrier aviation as having a helicopter airborne in “starboard delta” for the plane guard mission…. Basically, this (not “glamorous”) overhead tanking mission takes a tremendous amount of “airmanship” to put the tanker aircraft in the proper position when those jets that have emergencies, must divert, or who are “trick or treat on the ball” (nearing splash time due to fuel state), have that “sweet tanker” right in their windscreen with that green strobe when they need it… To do that flying takes quick, efficient thinking, an innate knowledge of vector analysis and the stick and throttle inputs (hand eye coordination) to maneuver and intercept other aircraft and do it fast/once. If you can’t visualize that, I can’t help you understand how “airmanship” is fundamental for a pilot that is not a “plumber”; perhaps 50% (maybe) of all TACAIR pilots, with experience, can consistently exhibit enough “A” to be a successful tanker pilot… In other words Navy “tanking” is not USAF “mission tanking” or even Navy mission tanking discussed ad nauseum in the comments below by industry war gamers/professional military gadflies, not Navy TACAIR pilots. Mr. Carey, I do not think F-18E/F drivers relish doing this mission particularly, and never have. They fly a fighter jet first and a attack jet second……

    Can this mission be automated and controlled, unmanned? Certainly, but the level of sophistication required is going to be harder than they think and is underestimated by all…. Starting with an air vehicle that is proven at this mission, in may mind, is paramount to accomplishing this program. My opinion is documented below. The way things are going I don’t feel confident this is going to happen in the manner the US Navy leadership thinks….

  • gk

    the thing that the unmanned designs bring is massive massive massive reduction in pilot training for carrier ops. Pilots must train regularly to accomplish Trap landings, and over a few years the training costs are enormous. This is often an overlooked feature of unmanned systems.