The Navy’s pilotless carrier-based air tanker bidders are beginning to announce development partners.
After the Navy unveiled its fiscal year 2019 budget request that included $719 million to fund MQ-25A Stingray system development, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems announced it had inked a deal with Boeing, another of the companies submitting a Stingray bid, to work together developing GA’s MQ-25A design. Lockheed Martin is the third company to submit a bid. An award is expected in the fall.
Boeing’s own Phantom Works team is developing the company’s MQ-25A offering for the Navy. Speaking to USNI News last week, Chuck Wright, the MQ-25A program director for General Atomics, said GA was teaming with Boeing’s autonomous systems group.
“If you think of it from the big Boeing perspective, they’ve got their prime offering, and they might win, but when General Atomics wins, Boeing will win too,” Wright said.
“They’re covering their bases.”
Wright said the relationship with Boeing is not different from other partnerships General Atomics has with Pratt & Whitney, UTC Aerospace Systems, BAE Systems and L3 Technologies for their Stingray bid.
For MQ-25A, Wright said Boeing’s lengthy experience designing carrier-based aircraft and the company’s large testing facilities strengthen the General Atomics bid.
The Navy is counting on the MQ-25A pioneering the integration of piloted and unpiloted operations on carriers. The service plans to field the capability on its carriers to alleviate the strain on the existing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets that are burning through flight hours while serving as a refueling tanker for other aircraft attempting to land on the aircraft carrier. Up to 20 to 30 percent of Super Hornet sorties are refueling missions.
“The Department is committed to fielding this game-changing technology as rapidly as practical,” Jamie Cosgrove, a NAVAIR spokeswoman, said in a statement to USNI News.
The initial buy is for four MQ-25A. According to a November Aviation Week interview with Rear Adm. Mark Darrah, NAVAIR’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, the Navy is considering purchasing up to 72 MQ-25A aircraft.
Cosgrove also told USNI News the goal for achieving initial operational capability is the mid 2020s, in line with the timeline announced Monday when the program was mentioned during a fiscal year 2019 briefing by Rear Adm. Brian Luther, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget and the director of fiscal management on the Chief of Naval Operations staff.
Recently, though, other Navy officials had suggested the MQ-25A could possibly be ready much earlier, within the next two years. Cosgrove told USNI the timeline had always been mid-2020s. She and other Navy spokespersons contacted by USNI did not offer an explanation as to why some officials had recently suggested an earlier timeline.
“MQ-25 is expected to provide an Initial Operational Capability to the fleet in the mid-2020s, which is an acceleration of two years from initial estimates for the program,” Cosgrove told USNI News.