Home » Aviation » Navy Has Picked the First Two Carriers to Fly MQ-25A Stingray Unmanned Aerial Refueling Tankers

Navy Has Picked the First Two Carriers to Fly MQ-25A Stingray Unmanned Aerial Refueling Tankers

Lockheed Martin MQ-25A Concept. Lockheed Martin Image

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) and USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) will be the first two carriers to field the Navy’s MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial refueling tanker, a spokesperson told USNI News.

The two carriers will receive upgrades to include the control stations and data links needed to control the tanker, Naval Air Systems Command spokeswoman Jamie Cosgrove told USNI News.

Bush was the first carrier to have an unmanned aerial vehicle to perform an arrested landing on its flight deck in 2013 in a test of the Northrop Grumman X-47B UAV.

It’s unclear when the Norfolk-based carriers will be upgraded, but several sources have told USNI News that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson intends to accelerate the deployment of the Stingray and get it on carrier decks as early as 2019.

The aircraft is in high-demand because it would help alleviate the burden on the carrier air wing’s current refueling aircraft: the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of Super Hornet sorties are used for refueling missions, USNI News has previously reported.

A Navy spokesperson told USNI News on Monday the program was “too pre-decisional” to comment on the operational introduction of the MQ-25A tanker.

Service leaders have said they wanted the capability by 2020.

Northrop Grumman’s X-47B is loaded Monday onboard the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) for a planned May, 14 2013 catapult launch. US Navy Photo

The service is set to release the request for proposals (RFP) to the four competitors for the business – General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman – later this year.

The Fiscal Year 2018 proposed budget included $222 million for research and development of the MQ-25A.

News of the first carriers set for the MQ-25A introduction comes as the Navy decided to reprogram $26.7 million for control systems and data link installation the MQ-25A will need to operate from an aircraft carrier, taking that money from the USS George Washington (CVN-73) during its four-year midlife refueling and complex overhaul (RCOH) in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget.

Most of the attention for the Stingray program has been on the air segment, the data link and control stations make up the other two-thirds of the program and are being developed by the Navy inside NAVAIR.

While the Stingray program cycled through several iterations – the low-observable and heavily armed Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) and the subsequently blended light-strike and long-endurance surveillance UCLASS created drastically different concepts for the airframes – the fundamental work of the links and the control stations remained largely unchanged. The data link and control station will also be able to interface with future unmanned airframes as they’re developed for the service.

Through the churn of the requirements for the air segment, the Navy has not outlined its next steps for unmanned carrier aviation beyond the limited goals for the MQ-25A.

However, the UCLASS control system will be able to quickly add new aircraft to capable carriers, USNI News understands.

  • scottled

    “The two carriers (Ike and GW Bush) will receive upgrades to include the control stations and data links needed to control the tanker.” I’m curious – what happens to an “autonomous” unmanned aerial vehicle when the carrier strike group sets EMCON Zulu? Launch, full mission profile, and recovery – without a single electronic squeak? How do the pilots tank with the MQ-25, without any emissions from either side? Does the Stingray respond to non-electronic signals, such as flashing lights? I anticipate there is a pre-programmed flight profile, but if there needs to be any diversion, either in location or mission, then what? Of course, the “Boat” won’t be where it was at the time of launch, how does the Stingray RTB under these circumstances? Landing by LSO hand signals, or by flying the “Ball”; has that been demonstrated? If there is absolutely NO electronic activity – no Link-11/16, no radio, no radar, no alternative data link, no anything – can it remain mission capable? Can it even remain airborne? Does it bingo, or maybe it goes into the drink in a controlled crash, so it doesn’t become “friendly FOD,” without command and control. This thing is the size of an F/A-18, and is loaded with fuel. Several thousand pounds of JP-5 coming in hot, without a brain, and no flight responses. Hmm, as if we didn’t have enough to worry about….

    • Jon

      Don’t ask uncomfortable questions…

      • Ed L

        I used to ask uncomfortable questions like that all the time. Use to drive the CIC people nuts.

  • Rob C.

    Seeing them just stealthy (not so fast) tankers just makes me think this is a waste. The government is ram-rodding the concept of unmanned military aircraft down the throats of the military establishment regardless if they like it or not. I don’t have confidence in these systems and how our services will behave. Regardless, they going have to do it. Just get going with doing it. Take some of spaces for aircraft their not going need (since manned craft are larger in some cases) put the UCAV control room in there and start using different variants of the plane until you figure out what works. Get over with if service is to be forced to do it.

  • Refguy

    No RFP yet, but “service leaders” want a 2020 availability and CNO wants it in 2019. The Navy couldn’t even buy an off-the-shelf bizjet that quickly!

  • Marauder 2048

    “Anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of Super Hornet sorties are used for refueling missions”

    That’s pretty disastrous for aircraft lifetimes.

    • tintruder

      That’s all ops.
      At sea, it’s more like 45%.

  • Blain Shinno

    Big deal. Isn’t this putting the cart before the horse?

    I am more interested in the MQ-25A.

    Planform? Wing, body, tail or some type of flying wing.

    Fuel capacity? Enough to support cyclic ops? Or are they going to be able to squeeze enough fuel into the Stingray in order to push out the strike range of the Super Hornets and F-35Cs?

    Secondary capabilities? ISR? Strike?

  • B2

    The entire MQ-25 program uses Orwellian language and I can’t figure it out. Let me see, the “strategy here”seems to be:

    – The CNO wants an operational MQ-25 by 2019, leadership by 2020…
    – The Navy is lead on the drone electronics package design through fielding of the system and air segment
    – One of (4) companies will be chosen to develop and field in 2 years, what they call an “air segment”- I reckon that means and aircraft/vehicle/platform/fying object….

    My observations:

    Based on UCAV, BAMS, Predator and a dozen other drones out there today, this MQ-25, carrier based, carrier suitable, “Air segment” must carry an Aerial Refueling Store (ARS), which suspiciously looks like a Sargent-Fletcher in the LM pic carried on Hornets and S-3’s. IMO, I don’t see one of those (4) companies fielding some new developmental, composite single engined drone capable (payload, range performance, flexibility, carrier suitable) of doing any significant operational Navy overhead tanking for years… forget about 2019… If this is so this program will be just another Ford, LCS, F-35, UCLASS/UCAV series program that will fail.

    On the other hand I know of only one existing “air segment/aircraft/vehicle/flying object” that meets and exceeds the carrier suitability, systems and payload requirement RIGHT NOW and is operationally proven with nearly 2M flight hours embarked and that is the S-3B Vikings located at AMARG that can be re-used as the MQ-25.

    Too much of a no-brainer though.

    • Blain Shinno

      I agree. 2020 is a bit soon. Do the manufacturers have something in the works that is ready to go? Or is it something that doesn’t have a lot of technical risk?

      Replacing the Super Hornet’s role in supporting cyclic ops is very doable. But if you are going to limit the requirements to that role then why not go with the S-3 option. I am wondering whether you can recover some of the volume in the S-3’s fuselage and use it for fuel or an internal hose/drogue system. Then you could carry two 300 gallon external fuel tanks.

      Designing an unmanned aircraft that at can offload 14-17,000 lbs of fuel at 500 nm seems a little daunting. I am wondering whether they will reduce that requirement at some point.

      • b2

        Re “in the works..”- Who knows?…. Expectations seems to be a flying plastic wing “air segment” ala UCAV, don’t it? All the glossies seem to indicate that.

        Re “daunting”- In the first batch of S-3’s Lockheed Ca Co. produced a single KS-3A with a centerline drogue/hose system without an ASW system. A system like that with conformal tanks in the existing bomb bay can easily meet that last requirement. Even with a buddy store option Further, stripped down to parade rest from the (4) person crew requirement (ALSS/etc.) the S-3B could a very flexible platform for what ails the present day, or postulated, carrier airwing. That’s because the Viking airframe was over engineered for the tasks just like all aircraft built for the Navy in that era. Purpose-built and flexible. Ironic how the USAF recognizes these attributes in the A-10 yet the Navy turned its back on the S-3…

        Re “reducing requirements”- seems to be the road most followed lately, eh?

        • tintruder

          One of the hornet tanker arguments the Navy uses to rule out the S-3 is that it can’t keep up with the strike package.
          To rule out the Intruder, they pull a variation of the same, using a 480kt planned speed. The Intruder does best around 420kt…maybe 450kt at low drag.

          Truth is, either would be a better choice than a drone.

          Both have the ability to perform numerous other missions, we already own them, and they don’t require expensive new gizmos on the carrier.

          • b2

            I have fully understood that S-3 “mission tanker” deficiency (50-75 kts) since the early 90’s when the Viking first started carrying ARS.
            However as a ‘Truder- type you know that the real need out there is the overhead and recovery tanking deficiency with the SuperHornet configured tanker. Something most people havent a clue including 99% of all non-carrier aviators… The tanking missions life limiting effects on their airframes (significant), all the dumped fuel (significant) and the inefficiency of the USN’s premier strike aircraft being relegated to flying at 10K (wasteful), similar to plane guard helo, on EVERY carrier event all day/night long waiting for customers or something to go wrong…. That is the real problem.
            “Stomps foot”- Remember that the US Navy’s best mission tanker is already in the fleet- the SuperHornet itself excels at that role and as you know all E/Fs are ARS capable.
            That, plus a lot of other logistics/material/service reasons in the Vikings favor, is why I go with the Viking as a No Brainer…Problem is, navy leadership hasn’t a brain it seems….. Logic 101.

  • tintruder

    There’s more than enough A-6Es, KA-6Ds, and S-3Bs sitting in the Arizona desert right now thst could be providing tankers.

    With a “give” of 15,000# – 18,000#, one Intruder tanker, or E model with a buddy store is equivalent to a dozen Hornets that can only transfer the 1500# in the buddy store.

    The hornet costs around $18,000/hr in direct operating costs, and another $12,000/hr in lost airframe life when used as a tanker instead of being conserved for tactical missions.

    So, 10 hornets to transfer 15,000# of gas costs roughly $300,000.00/hr, adding around $250.00 per gallon to the cost of delivering fuel, which already had to be delivered to the carrier by another ship.

    Some estimates put a gallon of jet fuel delivered by Hornet tanker as high as $750.00 per gallon when all costs are factored in.

    Flying the Intruders as tankers would reduce that cost by a factor of 5 to 10.

    The Navy, Marines, and AF are all using contract TACAIR providers (e.g. Drakken) for aggressors flying retired aircraft (i.e. A-4, F-5, MB339, Kfir, AlphaJet, L-39 etc.) so bringing the Intruders makes sense for tanking as well as other missions, especially where endurance is required.