Home » Budget Industry » Navy Issues New MQ-25A Stingray Draft RFP to Industry Ahead of Final RFP in the Fall

Navy Issues New MQ-25A Stingray Draft RFP to Industry Ahead of Final RFP in the Fall

Boeing image of the company’s MQ-25A Stingray bid. USNI News Photo

The Navy issued its latest draft request for proposals for what will be the service’s first operational carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle, U.S. Navy officials confirmed to USNI News on Thursday.

The Wednesday draft RFP for the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial refueling tanker will be the last refinement of the program requirements before the final RFP goes out to four industry competitors in the fall, Rear Adm. Mark Darrah, Program Executive Officer Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons, told USNI News on Thursday.

“What we’re looking for is.. our big next step in getting unmanned [aircraft] in the carrier air wing environment. The intent of this system is to extend the striking capability of the carrier air wing through organic tanking capability,” Darrah said.
“We want to make better use of our combat strike fighters and extend the range of the carrier air wing, and that’s what this system is intended to do. That’s its primary mission.”

The draft RFP for a planned engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) contract award in 2018 was issued to directly to the four competitors – Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Atomics. The quartet will compete under new acquisition rules that allow the service to provide less specific guidelines for the Stingray as a rapid prototyping effort.

For example, the MQ-25A effort only has two key performance parameters (KPP) for industry to adhere to in their crafting of the airframe for the MQ-25A.

“In the NDAA 2017 language, the services were given the authority to designate one program as a pilot to reduce the number of key performance parameters that would be in our requirements documents,” Darrah said.
“We have requested from OSD that permission in accordance with that language, and this program was selected, and we have two KPPs.”

According to MQ-25A program manager Capt. Beau Duarte those are:

“Carrier suitability. The system needs to be able to operate off of the aircraft carrier and integrate with all of the subsystems of the carrier. That’s catapults, that’s existing launch and recovery equipment,” he told USNI News on Thursday.
“Mission tanking. Sea-based tanker is the second KPP. It needs to be able to deliver a robust fuel offload at range to support an extension of the air wing and add flexibility of what’s available from a mission tanking perspective. There are a number of key system attributes or other requirements lower than that that are subsequent to [those] and are of lower importance and that will allow us to focus on those two key areas on tanking and carrier suitability and let those be the primary design drivers. “

Both Duarte and Darrah were reluctant to outline more specifics on the effort other than to say the bids have to use existing aerial refueling systems already in the fleet.

“We are saying that you do have to use the existing aerial refueling store that F/A-18s [and] S-3s have used – and that’s externally carried – and that’s to reduce development, cost and timeline and risk,” Duarte said.
“But how you configure the air vehicle to deliver that fuel is up to industry.”

Lockheed Martin image of the company’s MQ-25A Stingray bid.

Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin have published vague artist’s concepts of their bids showing an existing Navy buddy tank hanging from a wing like the current Super Hornets.

Darrah and Duarte didn’t talk cost estimates or ranges they’ve provided to industry.

“We have history. We’ve seen how [past] programs work,” Darrah said.
“When we put a number out there, eerily they tend to get to that number and go backwards, go backwards in their development so they hit that number. We are taking a different approach this time. We’re not going to define the that number at this point and direct them to provide us with their input so that we can adequately and accurately determine what they truly can do.”

While the air segment is the most visible part of the Stingray program, the physical UAV is only a third of the effort, which also includes the Navy-developed control system and data links to control the aircraft. While previous iterations of what is now Stingray have been based on developing new technologies, Darrah stressed the new airframe effort is less about developing new tech and more about mixing and matching existing systems to make unmanned tanking a reality on the carrier.

“The program has been structured so there isn’t any new development. There’s no new science here. This is an air system that will deliver an aeromechanical machine that can do the requirements,” he said.
“The government will be the lead systems integrator for those 70-plus programs of record which we feel gives us the capability to incorporate open architecture, flexibility for change in the future, and we’re driving the contractor to plug in into that architecture, that existing Navy architecture in the carrier environment.”

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator sits on an aircraft elevator of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) on May 6, 2013. US Navy Photo

As to when the MQ-25A will be operational, Darrah said the program was aiming for the 2020s. However, officials have said that Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson is pushing to have a real-world unmanned aircraft fly off a carrier as early as 2019.

The imperative is to alleviate the strain on the strike fighter fleet currently tasked with refueling the carrier air wing. The Navy estimates 20 to 30 percent of Super Hornet flight hours are used for tanking.

To support that effort, the Office of the Secretary of Defense directed the service to reshape the craft in early 2016 from an off-cycle intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform with a light strike capability to into a refueling tanker.

  • CharleyA

    V. interested in seeing what this leads to.

  • DogoodPatriot

    I can’t see how a x-47 based airframe is not chosen, the b version has already landed on a carrier and it brings a naturally stealthy design that will be very useful for future long range strike aircraft (>1,000nmi).

    • sferrin

      Because it would make way too much sense for the Keystone Cops crowd we have running things these days.

    • Tim Downing

      Because a wing body can no land heavy at slow speeds which are required for the arresting gear.

      • DogoodPatriot

        If that is the case, then why was there a winged body x-47 program to begin with and why was there a winged body a-12 avenger program back in the day? I know the a-12 program was cancelled but wasn’t that for cost reasons and not because of body design? Why go through the process of developing a carrier based winged body aircraft if it is not carrier viable? I have not heard about the problem you state, if there is any documentation to support it I would be interested. Thank you.

  • DaSaint

    Carrier capable: cats & traps, folding wings, volume for fuel, hard-points for external fueling pods. And low developmental. Sounds like an X-47-based airframe to me too. Northrop Grumman has to be the favorite, and GA has to be the underdog of underdogs. Also can’t see this going to Lockheed, but Boeing may have a shot behind NG.

    • Tim Downing

      Nope, the wing can not land slow and heavy. NG keeps trying to push the flying wing on the Navy even though they understand a full size concept will not work. Conventional designs get a lift coefficient up in the range of 2.5 and the wings can only get to 1.5 at best. Therefor the wing design approach has to be a lot higher. The arresting gear can only stop so much and the fast the approach the lower the max trap weight.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Sure seems like a waste of Super Hornet flight hours, doing such a menial task. I assume the tanker drones will be flown remotely, either from the carrier or somewhere in Nevada, and not some sort of autopilot?

    If they’re going to be given a stealthy shape, why spoil that capability with external fuel pods that will reflect radar like crazy? Might be best to refuel stealthy fighters or bombers just outside a combat zone with something equally as stealthy. Maybe a lower capacity internal tank for such missions, and external tanks for normal patrols?

    • allbuss84

      That stealth tanker was the initial plan, now they had to dumb it down…

      • I sense the naval unmanned strike concept was canned because it was a threat to the total buy numbers (and thereby cost) of F-35s. Foreign partners and USN/MC/AF were concerned it would result in fewer F-35s and each F-35 would become even more prohibitively expensive.

    • I would expect the MQ-25 to have two refueling configurations. A stealthy package would be clean of external tanks and carry enough internal fuel to extend a pair of clean F-35C’s. Meanwhile a ‘dirty’ package loaded down with tanks could refuel perhaps three or four F-18s. The air wing could also do both, first topping off F-18s with the tanks and then dropping those tanks to buddy with F-35s closer to shore.

    • Tim Downing

      They are not flown. They are autonomous and “controlled” from the CVN or shore site. Tell it where to go (joint 201 bearing 160 at 40NMs and it will go find 201 and join up without a pilot in the loop) That is what the X-47B prototyped. Basically showed that the pilot was no longer needed. Really blew me away as a former S-3 NFO that the X-47B could integrate in the stack with other aircraft, tank (receive fuel), and land autonomously. Off course we have self driving cars on the road now too.

      • publius_maximus_III

        Pretty amazing stuff — makes sense that a drone would do a better job flying straight and level, while the “real” pilots bobbed and weaved with up and down drafts as they “belly up to the bar” for a quick replenishment of JP-8. Here’s a new nickname suggestion for these stealthy “KC” drones: Grogs.

        And we do thank you for your service to your country, Mr. Downing.

  • Ziv Bnd

    The MQ-25 doesn’t have to be totally stealthy to really transform the way F-35’s will be able to work in a hostile environment. Even if the MQ-25 is just half as stealthy as the F-35 it will be able to follow the strike package a lot deeper into the enemy territory without being having the enemy radar be able to spot them, let alone lock onto them.
    And even if the refueling aircraft gets shot down after it refuels the F-35 strike package, it isn’t a pilot that is lost.
    It also sounds like the MQ-25 will have a relatively robust loiter capability as well, which will be useful.
    But I really can’t figure out why a relatively stealthy platform would have unstealthy buddy tanks on their wings…

    • @USS_Fallujah

      Except if the F-35s tanker gets shot down it might have enough fuel to Bingo back to the CVN and a ditched jet is just as good as a shot down jet.

      • Ziv Bnd

        Knowing the Navy, they will have a pair of F-18 with buddy stores to back stop the MQ-25. Thew could stage them a couple hundred miles back so that they could reach the F-35 strike package before they run out of fuel, which would mean that the F-18’s would be far enough back so that the enemy can’t use a radar return from the Super Bugs to figure out where the F-35’s likely are.
        The rate of closure between the buddy store F-18’s flying out and the F-35’s returning means that they can close 100 miles in just 8 minutes or so, 200 in around 16 minutes.
        I am no expert, this is just my assumption so take it for what it is worth.

        • @USS_Fallujah

          So the solution to the excessive use of F-18s as tankers is to have more F-18s as tankers to escort the tankers?

          • Ziv Bnd

            If you want to have a semi stealthy unmanned aerial refueling capacity, you may have to backstop it with a manned F18 for redundancy. Navy air uses a spare on nearly everything I believe. You want a 4 aircraft strike package? You prep 6 aircraft.

          • Ziv Bnd

            You should see the backups/reduncancies the Brits had for their bombers and refueling aircraft for their strike on the Falklands when the Argentinians invaded in 1982. That was an amazing attack.

  • sferrin

    Hmmm, retire all your long range strike aircraft, fighters, and tankers and now 20-30% of all Hornet hours are for tanking? I wonder what they thought was going to happen.

    • Curtis Conway

      Makes one wonder about those in charge huhh?

  • Centaurus

    Whatever happened to loading them up with ordinance and escorting them to target with F/A-18’s ?

    May as well use an X-37B as a tanker.

  • Blain Shinno

    I don’t think a flying wing platform is likely. Latest discussion points to a wing, body, tail. Besides GA, Boeing seems to be headed in that direction. I seem to remember someone from LM saying the same thing. I thought flying wings had more space for fuel, but maybe not.

    A more conventional design would be able to carry the refueling drogue and external fuel tanks under their wings. A flying wing would be limited.

    I suspect the final design will not be able to carry enough fuel in amounts to significant extend the range of the air wing.

  • b2

    Unless the S-3B are recapitalized/recovered from AMARG this program will take 10-15 years before IOC if ever.
    Only the S-3B “aero-vehicle” (doublespeak) meets and exceeds the vague requirements and it can even carry the buddy store ARS depicted as well as offer 100% proven carrier suitability that will cost this nation $20 billion to develop again in any “new” start….
    A no-brainer to reuse Vikings. but unfortunately brains are in a shortage these past decades. Believe me.

    • Tim Downing

      There are two issues with the S-3X (B doesn’t have enough give at 500 NM). First is people want fast and stealth and second is the politics of bringing back a retired aircraft (telling congress we made a mistake retiring the S-3B).
      But the S-3 could be gutted and updated to single pilot or NFO (with autonomous pilot, no need for a control data link with a NFO) and digital electronics, New engines and with new internal tanks, 2 buddy stores and she could launch with 30K lbs of fuel and be able to take on at least 10k lbs more once airborne (40k total). She would have a 30k give at 500 NM for the F-35C/F-18/EA-18 and be able to loiter out there for the package to return while providing communications relay. She would be able to bring back aboard 18k lbs of fuel.
      She would still be slow, but she would be a flying gas station with 14 hour legs (4,500 NM range) and with an updated electronic suite/pod mounted suite, she would be a 12 hour surveillance asset. So 2 or 3 airborne and networked like the F-35 is networked and the strike group would have organic 24/7 long range surveillance again, and a tanker with a 1.3 deck spot.

      • Curtis Conway

        Concerning the ultimate answer using the latest technology you are most likely correct. However, using the valuable asset still in the desert that will take less development and come on line more quickly, the S-3 concept has much to offer. How many times do we have to listen to “speed is not important” and got Super Hornets instead of an F-14 replacement with its speed and range, only to listen to this justification for a faster and longer ranged platform today? Upgrade the S-3 engines, cockpit, radar, composite fuselage and perhaps a new wing, and off we go. Use it for everything just like we did S-3s. The nose of the S-3 Viking will encompass a huge space in which a new AESA radar can be installed that will have perhaps twice the surface area of a like radar in the F-35. Mounted at an angle in the nose tipped forward in that space it will increase the surface area even more. It scans electronically so we can use the whole space unlike the previous gadget. That would represent a huge power-out factor for this platform. Lighter radar with greater power that can track more targets at greater range, provide communications & data relay, and has space for more operators if so configured. Provide multi-spectral ISR capability. ISR, weapons platform or tanker, perhaps both, would bring a lot to the table for the US Navy Air Wings. Beats what we go now on the carrier.

        The new Ford have more space on deck and off. The air wing has reduced in size much from what it once was, and all the Navy can do it talk about unmanned assets.

  • @USS_Fallujah

    I’m glad NavAir has gone with a crawl, walk, run development plan for integrating UAVs into the CVW, but this barely qualifies as a crawl. Underwing “buddy store” carriage for the fuel load basically means it’s a pig, which means it can only travel as far as the un-stealthy portion of a strike group, and reliant on F-18E/F protection making joint operations with the F-35 highly problematic.

  • freds

    I worked on the X-47B since 2009. This MQ-25 role is a very good thing and matches up with the current Buddy store method the NAVY uses where one F-35 or F-18 currently is used to refuel two other F-18s. An unmanned fuel tank is much more efficient way to carry fuel. Don’t need a man on board and all the weight and life support functions. The X-47B demonstrated Cats and Traps on a real carrier moving at sea. Stealth for a tanker is not a big issue since when the Navy uses large scale refueling such as their C-130 or borrowing tanker support from the USAF those large tankers are not stealthy. The actual design of the Air Vehicle is going to be interesting. There are some weight and dimension limits since the Vehicle must catapult off the deck and be able to land on the deck. Catapult weight limits tend to be on the order of 70,000 pounds, give or take. Dimensions, well it can’t be 100 feet wide or it won’t fit on the ship elevators or won’t be able to go down the carrier deck without hitting the superstructure or other planes on the deck. Some folding wing designs have been talked about to extend the lift and range.

  • Tim Downing

    I’m still lost why the NAVAIR wants to use the buddy store? That store is good for a recovery tanker, but not good for a mission tanker when your trying to transfer 8 to 10k of fuel. It has been a while, but the store holds approximately 480 gallons and is filled from the aircraft via the pylon small pipe. I say small because the hose and drogue are twice the diameter and the store internal pump runs at high speed until the store is low on fuel and then slows down so the pump doesn’t run dry or pump air as the tanker aircraft fuel is pumped into the store. The buddy store is great for the 2,500 lbs and then transfer really slows down. This is not what you want in a mission tanker that is trying to move 8 – 10K to a F-35C 500 NM from mom and on a 900 – 100NM strike profile.
    I hope that NAVAIR rethinks the buddy store requirement as I would hate to see the MQ-25A trying to use higher aircraft pump pressures to move aircraft fuel into to store faster through that small buddy store fill tube.