The U.S. Navy’s original plan to build an unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UClass) aircraft has morphed into an unmanned aerial refueling platform that is being called the MQ-25 Stingray. The service expects to issue a request for proposals (RFP) this year for an aircraft that would enter service in the mid-2020s.
The Navy issued a request for information under the UClass program in 2010, then awarded study contracts, preliminary design review contracts and draft RFPs to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics in the ensuing years. Following a Department of Defense “strategic portfolio review” in 2015, the service restructured the program to specify an aerial refueling tanker. Initially called the Carrier-Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS), the aircraft was earlier designated RAQ-25, then MQ-XX, before acquiring its current designation. (The Navy said the official designation remains MQ-XX until the formal number is approved.)
The UClass effort foundered over whether the aircraft should be primarily a penetrating strike or a long-endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform. The designation of the new aircraft evolved from RAQ (for reconnaissance and attack), the original UClass designation, to MQ (multi-mission) “to better encompass what we anticipate being the scope of the platform,” the Navy said in response to an AIN inquiry.
A Pentagon Joint Capabilities Board will meet in early April to define the MQ-25 program requirements before an RFP is issued. “The actual acquisition strategy is scheduled to be announced in the summer,” the Navy said. The service has requested $89 million in research and development funding for the program in its Fiscal Year 2017 budget request. It has budgeted $2.16 billion for the program through FY2021.
Unveiling the Navy’s budget request in February, Rear Adm. William Lescher, deputy assistant secretary for budget, described the UClass platform as “a much more aggressive increment of capability” than what the service envisions for Stingray. The new aircraft—then being called CBARS—will have “limited strike” as well as ISR and refueling capability. “The real value of this restructure is that it incrementally gets at the manned/unmanned interface and operation on the carrier deck in the air wing by the mid-20s,” Lescher said. “It’s a smart acquisition approach to incrementally burn down that risk and then we'll continue to look at developing additional capability.”
Testifying before the House Appropriations Committee defense subcommittee on March 1, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the MQ-25 will replace Boeing F/A-18E/Fs Super Hornets in the aerial tanker role, freeing the multi-role fighter to perform its strike mission. The Stingray “will also have the range and payload capacity associated with high-endurance unmanned aircraft to provide critically-needed, around-the-clock, sea-based ISR support to the Carrier Strike Group and the Joint Forces Commander,” Mabus stated. “The Navy envisions that the open standards to be employed in the Stingray design will enable future capabilities to be introduced to the aircraft after it has been fully integrated into the carrier air wing.”
The original UClass competitors are expected to return with proposals for the Stingray acquisition. Lockheed Martin earlier revealed a flying-wing concept drawing from its work on the unmanned RQ-170 Sentinel and F-35C Lightning II. Northrop Grumman and Boeing proposed advancements of their own flying wings, respectively the X-47B and Phantom Ray. General Atomics proposed the Sea Avenger, a carrier-based derivative of its jet-powered Predator C Avenger.
At Lockheed Martin’s annual media day on March 15, AIN asked Rob Weiss, general manager of the Skunk Works advanced development unit, was asked if the manufacturer was forced to “go back to the drawing board” as a result of the UClass program restructuring. “We haven’t gone back to the drawing board,” he replied. “What we have told some leadership of the Navy about that is we believe we can begin with a planform design that will address the Navy’s near-term desires for a low-cost primarily air refueling, limited strike/surveillance type capability. We’re suggesting that same planform can grow over time to be a penetrating strike and ISR asset. In our view, there’s no reason to start with a traditional wing-body-tail planform that will not provide the opportunity to grow it to operate in a contested airspace.”
Weiss added: “As long as you start with the right planform, you can solve the near-term problem that the Navy has identified and have the path forward with the same basic design. But it’s critical to start with the right planform.”