Navy Picks Boeing to Build MQ-25A Stingray Carrier-Based Drone

By: Megan Eckstein and Sam LaGrone

Tests of Boeing’s MQ-25A Stringray prototype in St. Louis. Boeing Image

This post has been updated to include comments from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Navy acquisition chief James Geurts.

THE PENTAGON – Boeing will build the first unmanned aircraft to be a permanent part of the U.S. Navy’s carrier air wing, Navy officials announced Thursday.

Under the $805-million contract, Boeing will “provide the design, development, fabrication, test, verification, certification, delivery, and support of four MQ-25A unmanned air vehicles, including integration into the carrier air wing to provide an initial operational capability to the Navy,” according to the contract announcement.

The Navy plans for the first four Stingrays to achieve initial operational capability on carrier decks in 2024, an acceleration compared to previous IOC estimates. The first airframes should be flying by 2021, and the Navy will then have to conduct carrier suitability testing, modify aircraft carriers to support the control station, train the maintainers and pilots, build a sufficient logistics chain, and other criteria to support the 2024 IOC, Navy acquisition chief James Geurts told reporters today at the Pentagon, in announcing Boeing as the winner of the Stingray competition.

“2024 sounds a long way away, but there’s a lot of work we’re going to have to do to get there,” he said.

The contract covers the engineering and manufacturing development of Boeing’s Stingray design and the production of four airframes to be used for these early testing efforts. The Navy eventually plans to buy 72 more vehicles, with a total program cost of about $13 billion – though Geurts noted that cost estimate was calculated prior to receiving Boeing’s bid and would be updated at a later time.

The new tanker could double the strike range of the carrier air wing, with the MQ-25A delivering up to 15,000 pounds of fuel at 500 nautical miles. The contract award comes as the Navy is struggling to keep up the readiness of its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet, which also serves as a tanker for the air wing. Anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of Super Hornet flight hours are devoted to aerial refueling operations, and cutting those hours is part of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson’s drive to get MQ-25s to the fleet.

Richardson said the announcement today would prove historic for two reasons: one being the operational impact to the fleet, and the second being the acquisition lessons learned that can be applied to other upcoming programs.

Operationally, the CNO told reporters that this was the first step in “integrating unmanned and manned into the future air wing. And then it brings a tremendous capability to the air wing in terms of extending the range of the air wing and not doing so at the expense of strike fighters, which we use to do that tanking mission right now – so you get not only that extended range but also greater striking power out of the air wing by virtue of liberating those F-18s from doing tanking.”

On the acquisition side, the Navy made the unusual move of only including two key performance parameters: mission tanking, and carrier suitability. The Navy also brought together the requirements, acquisition and engineering communities and industry early on in the process, allowing for a more productive dialogue and fewer surprises when bids were submitted.

Geurts said “the level of interaction we had between requirements and acquisition, and working that kind of hand-in-hand, which enabled us to rapidly get through the requirements process several years faster than I would say is standard; it enabled us to clearly articulate in the [request for proposal] what was important to the Navy, with also being able to leave a lot of room for innovation in design; and it allowed us to perform what I believe was a very sound source selection in a period of nine months.”

He said including two only main criteria in the evaluation of the MQ-25A bids helped encourage creativity instead of tamping it down.

“I’m optimistic that will allow us, one, to ensure we get what we need, but also not get bogged down into proscribing designs and removing levels of innovation, affordability, flexibility, creativity that quite frankly industry brings. So I think our element of creativity is, what’s really critically important, and I think to the benefit of this program we were able to describe succinctly these are the two must-haves, everything else is open for discussion and integration.”

Richardson said during the discussion that “the way that we got here will also be an inflection point, I hope, in the way that we do acquisition, requirements definition, bringing industry in early, talking through sort of 21st century acquisition matters such as data rights and everything else.” He added that the process helped the Navy “make the biggest leap possible with the confidence in the maturity of the technology, so we can do cost and schedule with more confidence than before.”

The CNO said he expected the ongoing frigate competition would use the same principles, with hopefully the same positive results.

With the bids reviewed and a selection made in a speedy nine months, and the IOC date accelerated by two years, Richardson said he was proud of the effort but there was still further opportunity to accelerate even more – potentially leading to an earlier IOC and fielding date if all goes well in the coming years.

“Let’s not rest too easy here, because a lot of that learning is still to come, particularly the operational learning. … There’s a carrier part of this: there’s going to be some installations on the carriers, systems for integrating this; how do you move it about the deck; how do you get up and get a manned and an unmanned aircraft together, one tanking off the other; and kind of get into what are the implications for cyclic ops, endurance, use of that tanker when you don’t have to worry about things like pilot fatigue, etc. So I’m very eager to start testing all those things out. I think one of the other things is that we’ve got a lot of that thinking already started down there at [Naval Air Station Patuxent River], so we’ll just continue to maintain this momentum going forward.”

While the airframe is the most visible portion of the Stingray effort, it is only one-third of the overall program. Naval Air Systems Command is developing the carrier-based control station as well as the system to network the aircraft to the carrier and the rest of the air wing in-house, based on the work for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program.

Geurts had high praise for the program’s decision to use the government as the integrator, outlining various future benefits, to include an ease of adding in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities if the Navy chose to do so. If the Navy wanted to add ISR or any other capability, it would have the option to add the capability onto the airframe – which Boeing has left margins to do so – or via another airframe that could be integrated into the overall system through the command and control suite and the control station.

“As other platforms and technologies become available, we can continue to accelerate the speed at which we integrate those into the air wing at affordable prices, at the speed of relevance,” Geurts said.

Richardson too talked about the possibility of adding ISR capabilities down the line, telling reporters that “the idea, at least as I see it, is, we can very very efficiently and effectively and for a great price put an ISR package on this aircraft and let it do its tanking mission. It was very very important that [ISR] did not become a driver in terms of its … cost and design and all those things. Having said that, these days it’s very easy to integrate some ISR capability, so we’ll take a look at what those possibilities are going forward.”

Lockheed Martin and General Atomics had also submitted bids for the MQ-25A work. Northrop Grumman pulled out of the competition in October.

Out of the three competitors, Boeing was the only company to build a working prototype of their bid. Company officials highlighted the early work in their announcement on Thursday.

“As a company, we made an investment in both our team and in an unmanned aircraft system that meets the U.S. Navy’s refueling requirements,” Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said in a statement. “The fact that we’re already preparing for first flight is thanks to an outstanding team who understands the Navy and their need to have this important asset on carrier decks around the world.”

The award marks the end of a dozen years of requirements churn in how the service would introduce unmanned aircraft onto carrier flight decks. The final Stingray concept is more modest than the service’s vision for the first carrier UAVs in 2006.

Then, the Navy wanted a stealthy strike platform that could extend the lethal reach of the carrier air wing to hundreds of miles beyond the range of the current crop of aircraft and the physical limitations of pilots.

The service pursued development of an Unmanned Combat Air System that could carry the same internal payload as the then-under-development F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and penetrate enemy air defenses to strike targets thousands of miles from a carrier

However, the lethality and stealth of the concept were diluted, in part, to create a carrier-based UAV that could be developed quickly to conduct low-intensity counter-terrorism missions in the event the U.S. lost access to its drone bases in Southeast Asia.

Based on a set of late 2012 requirements, Naval Air Systems Command worked on the ISR-oriented Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) until former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work undertook a comprehensive review of the Pentagon’s unmanned aircraft portfolio.

Following the review, the Navy announced that what had been the UCLASS program would be focused on solely the tanking mission as part of the Pentagon’s broader Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal.

The following is the Aug. 30, 2018 contract announcement:

The Boeing Co., St. Louis, Missouri, is awarded a ceiling price $805,318,853 fixed-price-incentive-firm-target contract to provide the design, development, fabrication, test, verification, certification, delivery, and support of four MQ-25A unmanned air vehicles, including integration into the carrier air wing to provide an initial operational capability to the Navy. The work will be performed in St. Louis, Missouri (45.5 percent); Indianapolis, Indiana (6.9 percent); Cedar Rapids, Iowa (3.1 percent); Quebec, Canada (3.1 percent); Palm Bay, Florida (2.3 percent); San Diego, California (1.5 percent); and various locations inside and outside the continental U.S. (37.6 percent), and is expected to be completed in August 2024. Fiscal 2018 research, development, test and evaluation (Navy) funds in the amount of $79,050,820 will be obligated at time of award, none of which will expire at the end of the current fiscal year. This contract was competitively procured via an electronic request for proposals; three offers were received. The Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River, Maryland, is the contracting activity (N00019-18-C-1012).

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