Home » Aviation » Navy Prioritizing Speed to Field Over Price for MQ-25A Stingray Program

Navy Prioritizing Speed to Field Over Price for MQ-25A Stingray Program

MQ-25A Stingray concepts
Top to Bottom: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Atomics

ST. LOUIS — After years of requirements churn and program uncertainty, the signal to companies vying to build the Navy’s first operational unmanned carrier aircraft is crystal clear: the Navy wants the MQ-25A Stingray as soon as possible.

On Jan. 3, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics all submitted their responses to the Navy’s final request for proposal for the airframe of the Stingray and are expecting the service to select a final design as soon as this summer.

The procurement schedule was accelerated at the behest of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, Boeing MQ-25A program manager and former program executive officer for Navy tactical aircraft B.D. Gaddis told reporters on Thursday.

“His number-one priority is the schedule. Price is number two. He wants this airplane out there quickly. The request for proposals and the source selection criteria reflect those priorities really, really well in terms of accelerating the schedule,” Gaddis said.
“He’s putting the pedal to the floor. Normally it takes NAVAIR about 18 months to do a source selection like this. They’re going to do it six months. When the CNO said he wanted to accelerate the schedule, he meant it.”

Boeing’s MQ-25 unmanned aircraft system is completing engine runs before heading to the flight ramp for deck handling demonstrations next year. The aircraft is designed to provide the U.S. Navy with refueling capabilities that would extend the combat range of deployed Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Boeing EA-18G Growler, and Lockheed Martin F-35C fighters. Boeing photo.

Outside of the requirements to industry, the service signaled it was bent on moving quickly on the program by including $719 million for the program development and the first four production airframes as part of its Fiscal Year 2019 budget submission.

The program has been moving quickly since the Office of the Secreatary of the Defense watered down the requirements of the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) concept and pushed companies to focus on the tanking requirement.

The decision to focus on tanking was the result of a strategic review of the UCLASS program led by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work as Congress and the Navy struggled with how to define the role of UCLASS in the fleet.

“Going back to the UCLASS days, there’s a lot of… not everyone was aligned — to say it nicely — between Congress, OSD and the Navy and the fleet on the requirements,” Gaddis said.

A major driver of the program shift was to provide much-needed relief to the fleet’s already overworked F/A-18E/F Super Hornets that are burning up to 20 to 30 percent of their flight hours as tankers for deployed air wings.

Lockheed Martin MQ-25A Concept. Lockheed Martin Image

The Navy has been vague about the requirements, but USNI News understands the service’s basic requirements will have the Stingray deliver about 15,000 pounds of fuel up to 500 nautical miles from the carrier.

As part of an earlier risk-reduction contract that also included Northrop Grumman, all the competitors were required to conduct a tanking trade study to best configure their offering for the MQ-25A work.

Based on those findings, Boeing and Lockheed Martin both determined modified versions of their UCLASS pitches would fit the bill for the service.

From 2012 to 2014, Boeing’s Phantom Works quietly built a flying prototype of its UCLASS design, built around a Rolls-Royce AE 3007 engine.

As the competition moves forward, Boeing is the only current competitor to have revealed a working prototype for its Stingray bid, since Northrop Grumman dropped its X-47B design out of the competition late last year.

“We had to go through that entire study, just like we did with UCLASS, to make sure that we had the right engine, we had the right design to see if we had to change anything substantial, and the answer that came out of that study was that we no we didn’t,” Gaddis said.
“Now that it’s just a tanker with little [information, surveillance and reconnaissance], we’re still in the wheelhouse with this requirement.”

Artist’s Concept of the General Atomics MQ-25 Stingray. GA Image used with permission

Likewise, Lockheed Martin based its bid on its original UCLASS design. Lockheed had pushed a flying-wing design for its UCLASS offering that could grow into a stealthier platform more easily, Lockheed Martin’s MQ-25A program manager John Vinson told USNI News last week.

“We spent a lot of time at looking at what I would call conventional winged aircraft, but we also continued to look at our old UCLASS design, which has been designed as a stealthy first-day unfettered-access kind of ISR asset,” Vinson said.
“What can we do with the flying wing if we relax that stealthy, unfettered access requirement?”

In September, representatives from General Atomics said their bid was going to borrow heavily from the company’s experience in developing its MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft for the Air Force, in addition to the company’s Sea Avenger concept design.

Ahead of the final selection, the competitors will have to prove a deck handling demonstration for their airframes as part of the ongoing risk-reduction contracts.

While the companies are vying for the airframe, the Navy is responsible for designing and developing the data links and the ground control station and acting as the lead systems integrator for the effort. Much of that work was part of the Navy’s X-47B carrier launch and recovery tests in 2013 and 2014.

Moving ahead, the real challenge isn’t launching a UAV on and off the carrier but how the aircraft will fit into the airwing and the strike group.

“What’s the breakthrough that’s going to occur with the MQ-25? It’s not frankly the ability to operate an unmanned air system off a carrier. We know how to do that,” outgoing Skunk Works head Rob Weiss told reporters on Monday.
“The learning opportunity is going to be manned, unmanned teaming.”

  • ElmCityAle

    “His number-one priority is the schedule. Price is number two. He wants this airplane out there quickly. ” – stockholders popping open bottles of champagne. Tax payers, not so much.

    • Tim Downing

      Not quiet so fast! Getting it out there fast will eliminate requirements creep. Requirements creep is what the stockholders love because the contract is let and so creep means a blank check!

  • RunningBear

    As one who hoped the MQ-25 would evolve from the systems of the F-35, both mechanical and avionics, I am pleased with the “LM look” of their offer. It will fly in contested airspace and as such, the stealthy appearance would lend itself to a better chance of survivability/ undetected, when refueling a strike package inbound or on exit from the targeted areas. This “look” would also support the EODAS stealthy technology in an ISR deep penetration or from a high altitude “look down”. The merging of the EODAS, EA/EW and a distributed AESA radar with the F-35 structural and paneling technology should offer some unique distributed passive radar designs that would provide the live datastream by MADL back to the fleet.


    • Tim Downing

      Stealthy appearance means nothing when she will be carrying a standard Buddy Store. The RCR of the Buddy Store exceeds 1 square meter, so there is no stealth advantage in the LM design.

  • b2

    Want something out there “quickly CNO”?

    Your ONLY viable option is to re-use the S-3 as the initial MQ-25 vehicle, unmanned, while simultaneously/concurrently developing, testing and carrier suit-ing the new vehicle, as proposed by the eventual OEM winner. Carrier- suiting that vehicle is/will be the long pole- trust me. Performance wise the S-3 vehicle right outta AMARG exceeds the “long pole’s attributes”, is available in numbers, we know all about it, and without a doubt exceeds the mission requirements for MQ-25 made public and without stealth…. Using it is the only way to frontload the schedule…I remember less than a year ago you talked about 2019 for MQ-25 introduction.. Hoping for something faster aint a strategy for fielding something…

    That, Sir, is your only option to see anything usable and in numbers until 2026- 2030 when the developmental vehicle may be ready. In itself that forecast is simply based on prior performance actuals of the OEMS delivering products from the defense industry and at their best over the past 20 years…What is being discussed above in the article is simply not achievable…

    • Duane

      You realize that if the Navy today decided to reactivate the old S3s sitting in the boneyard, the Navy would have to expend years in evaluating the condition of the birds, and make SLEP designs, and then do a SLEP procurement, and then …

      It would take many years to put the S3s into service. The schedule for MQ-25 is much shorter than that. And each S3 will require two human pilots to have to train up, while the MQ-25 will require one remote pilot or less, given that they will be at least semi-autonomous other than for cats and traps, and the actual refueling process.

      • DaSaint

        B2 is proposing an unmanned conversion and reactivation of the S-3. That said, I think the time for reactivation of the S-3 has passed, despite the life left in those airframes.

    • DaSaint

      I loved the S-3. Hated to see it retired prematurely. But the writing is clear. They want an airframe for now and the future, and don’t want to reactivate the S-3 for this mission. But it should be reactivated for the ASW mission, IMHO, as the importance of carrier-borne ASW regains importance, and the need to extend the defensive posture around the carrier increases.

      • Tim Downing

        Best airframe the USN ever had is sitting in the boneyard with 1/2 of its life still available. What a shame that the cost of maintaining analog avionics and loss of its primary mission doomed the S-3 to desert storage.
        Today’s Navy has no idea what the S-3s and F-14s could do with 1+45 cycles compared to today’s F-18s and 1+15 cycles. Being able the fight at 500+ NMs without tanking and flying double and triple cycles was the norm. Not “Where is Texaco”!

    • Tim Downing

      I think Boeing has a prototype flying already. If NAVAIR does not allow requirements creep (LOL), Boeing appears to be able to produce fast. LM on the other hand has nothing but a paper airplane, so they should think about your S-3 idea as a second offering.

  • Duane

    This will be an interesting test for the new procurement leadership at the Pentagon. 18 months to buy is too long for something like this, a relatively small scale program like MQ-25. The 6 month procurement and emphasis of speed of delivery are artifacts of the years of development work invested in the UCLASS, and a streamlining of the purchase process. The need is urgent.

    • muzzleloader

      I agree that the need is urgent. My only concern is, for heavens sake, let’s get it right the first time.

      • Tim Downing

        LOL, when was the last time the NAVAIR got it right? Long before the F-18. Even the F-14 had poor engines and avionics until the F-14D. The S-3 had poor avionics until the S-3B mod. The A-6 and A-7 were pretty good, but the last of their pilots have long since retired and they were back in the simple wing and engine days.

  • DaSaint

    Boeing and LockMart have carrier-ready vehicles now. General Atomics was smart in enlisting Boeing, and will need their expertise and possibly existing components for their landing gear.

    This will be fun to watch, but I just can’t see LockMart being entrusted to provide this system, while still working out the kinks and delivery schedules of the F-35s. One too many airframes in the proverbial basket. My guess is Boeing or General Atomics, which would be a major upset in current carrier aviation. But who knows, I’ve been wrong before!

    • Duane

      I have no idea which bird the Navy will select, but LM easily had the capacity to produce this small batch of aircraft. Boeing is just as “busy” as LM, and Boeing is in hot water with the AF on their debacle otherwise known as the KC-46 tanker which is far behind schedule and still hasn’t met specs The KC-46 is a big black mark for Boeing today. Whether that is determinant, in a program for which schedule is imperative, is to be determined. As for the F-35, that program has been operating to schedule for the last 7 years since it was rebaselined

      • Raptor1

        Most would argue that f-35, which was originally scheduled for introduction a decade ago, is a much better candidate for “Hot Water Project of the last… 20 years” Award.

        Tankers need to be replaced yes… But in real-life terms, f-35 delays have cost many billions, changes to fleet size, remote tankers to support them, outrageous maintenace costs and logistics,… and total $$$ climbing every day. And STILL not ready for HRP… Stops and starts on Tanker pale in comparison to a program that has been essentially non-stop since proposals 21 years ago… IMO anyways.
        If it were operating to schedule for the past 7 years, as you state, f-35 would be in HRP long ago… “Rebaselining” is just a fancy word for missed timelines, kicked-out capabilities, and a general dismissal of “wrongs” in the program – starting with its general 3-variant concept and over reliance on to-this-day immature tech.
        So the rebaseline accomplished what exactly in the ensuing 7 years? An ioc status that is fraught with huge logistical and maintenance costs? Impressive stuff, they should try another “rebaseline”, maybe we’ll have FRP in 2025+ when 6th gen is flying.

    • Duane

      dup. comment

  • CharleyA

    I was looking over Boeing’s model at the show today. The exhaust was a long, rectangular slot. Hmmm, why would you have that if the airframe wasn’t designed to be VLO with a different wing in a few years….

  • RunningBear

    The flying wing MQ-25 in Lockheed’s bid will be powered by the GE Aviation F404 engine, the same engine in the existing fleet of F/A-18C/D. The engine exists in the supply and maintenance systems. Potentially the existing engines in the retiring -18C/D could be rebuilt and reused (free-ish??)

    • RunningBear

      F404-GE-402/ F/A-18C/D
      – 17,700 lb thrust
      – 154″ length (12.8′)

      – 35″ diameter
      – drives a 20Kva generator

      • Refguy

        Isn’t that with afterbuner? Would you want afterburning engines for the tanker mission, or something more efficient? KA-6, KA-3 and KS-3 all had dry engines with 11K thrust or less. KA-3 and KA-6 had turbojets, KS-3 had more efficient fans. High (compared to F404) bypass fans should be the best choice for a tanker.

        • hollygreen9

          If I r5emember correctly, the KA3B had the J 57- P10 which only put out 8000 Lb of thrust.

          • Refguy

            I defer to you on the specific version 0f the J57 in the Whale, most of what I remember about the non/ab J57 is based on the versions in the Buff and KC-135, civil version (JT3) in early 707’s which were close to 10k – that may have been for the water-injected version.

          • hollygreen9

            Those used the JT3 engines, based on the J-57.

          • Refguy

            Yes, I know the JT3 and J57 are variants for civil & military applications. The BUFF and KC-135 used the military version; civil (707, DC-8) and military versions were available with water injection. You could tell when water injection was being used by the significant increase in smoke.

      • airider

        Low bypass ratio turbofan engines like the F404 are poor options for an aircraft that needs to stay up a while and “give” as much gas as possible.

  • Barnacle Bill

    Classic axiom in acquisition: You can have it delivered cheap, fast or good. Pick two.

    Appears fast and good have been chosen, so that means break open the wallet. Now comes the programmer’s conundrum: what will be the offset for funding the increased cost of speed in delivery?

  • b2

    Down below I stated for S-3 reuse as unmanned and simply that the initial vehicle/testbed should be S-3 derived. Nothing more. Not to kill any futuistic flying wing tanker job program… I proposed it for the existing fleet warfighting so desperate in need of overhead tanking, and some reality. For the CNOs schedule he is fast losing or has alread lost. Thats all.

    BTW, reuse of the S-3 entails zero (0) SLEP update, because the existing/remaining life of the jet we threw to the curb has 10K average fatigue life remaining! Thats a fact. Only PDM to take the corrosion off is required and PDM for the engines that are still in use w/A-10….
    Did I tell you before that this vehicle is carrier suitable + from the gitgo? Think about it. That alone is worth 10-20 billion cost/s chedule avoidance by itself!

    We could have numbers of S-3’s available for unmanned system re-missionization in 18 months or less given a depot effort. How do I know this? It has already been done (IE-actuals) in order to operate the last jets at VX-30 (4) so this isn’t reinventing the wheel as others say. Just think of the development schedule you could avoid, CNO…. Of course you have to think outta the failure box of fly-by committee group to implement an idea like this…

    • Tim Downing

      b2, I have run the numbers and as you state the S-3 with modifications (stripped down, digital fly-by wire, UAV mod and internal tanks) could launch with 30K of fuel and take on 10k more airborne and have a 28K give at 500 NM. Two would launch one cycle (1+15) early and refuel 8 F-35Cs for the 1000 NM strike. One more S-3 would launch 2+30 (1 cycle after the F-35 strike launches), take on 10k airborne, and meet the 8 returning F-35C at 500 NM with 28k to get them home.
      So Navair RFP for 14k at 500NM still has me scratching my head. Biggest question I have is how does Navair define a “Mission tanker” profile?

  • Refguy

    Why would a long development be cheaper than a short one?

  • Ctrot

    Since when has price ever been a priority, really a priority, on a government program?

  • airider

    I like the GA design. Lots of lift and on station time with high aspect ratio wings. Small footprint on the carrier deck with wings folded….guess we’ll see if the “tanker” requirements stay at the top of the list or if NAVAIR lets requirements creep drive the program into a stealthy Nunn-McCurdy nightmare…

  • hollygreen9

    What will the Navy think of next? Maybe they will build robots to take care of the pilotless aircraft.