On August 30th, it was announced that Boeing will build the first unmanned MQ-25A Stingray carrier-based drone, which is an aerial refueling tanker. It is to become a permanent part of the U.S. Navy’s carrier air wing, according to Navy officials, cited by USNI News.
The contract has a value of $805 million and according to its announcement 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.”
The contract award announcement is as follows:
“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).”
The Navy’s plan is for the first four Stingrays to achieve operational capability on carrier decks in 2024, which is an acceleration compared to previous Initial Operating Capability (IOC). The initial airframes are to be flying in 2012 and the Navy will have to conduct carrier suitability testing, modify the aircraft carriers to support the control station, train maintenance staff and pilots, build a sufficient logistics chain and other criteria to support the 2024 IOC, according to acquisition chief James Geurts who spoke to reporters at the Pentagon. “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 with Boeing covers the design and the production of four Stingray airframes to be used for early testing. The Navy eventually plans to purchase 72 more aircraft, the total program cost is $13 billion, however the cost estimate was calculated before receiving Boeing’s bid and would be updated at a later moment.
The new aerial tanker could possibly 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. As reported by USNI News, the contract comes as the Navy is struggling to maintain the readiness of its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet, which also serves as a tanker for the air wing. Reportedly from 20 to 30% 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-25As to the fleet.
According to Richardson the announcement of the deal was 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.
In terms of operations, the Chief of Naval Operations told reporters that the procurement of the MQ-25A 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.”
For the acquisition there were only two key performance parameters, included by the Navy: mission tanking and carrier suitability. As reported by USNI News, the Navy also brought together the requirements, acquisition and engineering communities and industry at an early stage of the process, which allowed 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.”
According to him the inclusion of only two main criteria in the evaluation of the MQ-25A bids helped encourage creativity. “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.”
Chief of Naval Operations Richardson said during the discussion in the Pentagon 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 further commented that the process assisted 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.”
Geurts and Richardson also commented on the possibility of adding intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
Lockheed Martin and General Atomics had also submitted bids for the MQ-25A work. Northrop Grumman pulled out of the competition in October 2017.
Out of the three competitors, Boeing was the only company to build a working prototype of their bid. On August 30th, company officials emphasized on their early work. “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 of the procurement comes after 12 years of requirements on 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.
In 2006, 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. The lethality and the stealth of the concept were diluted, to create a carrier-based UAV that could be developed quickly to conduct low-intensity counter-terrorism missions in the event that the US lost access to its drone bases in Southeastern Asia, as reported by USNI News.
Based on requirements from late 2012, 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. The result was that the Navy announced that the UCLASS program would be focused solely on the tanking mission as part of the Pentagon’s broader Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal.