The Boeing Phantom Works has already completed a prototype of its candidate for the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 requirement for up to 72 unmanned air tankers. The company released a carefully cropped image of the UAV sitting on the ramp at its St. Louis facility. Engine runs have been done, and the UAV will conduct deck-handling demonstrations early next year, presumably at St. Louis.
“Boeing has been delivering carrier aircraft to the Navy for almost 90 years,” said Don "BD" Gaddis, a retired admiral who leads the refueling system program for the Phantom Works. “Our expertise gives us confidence in our approach. We will be ready for flight testing when the engineering and manufacturing development contract is awarded.” Proposals in response to the navy’s RFP are due on January 3, with a contract award expected by next September, the end of FY2018.
The image revealed an air vehicle that still exhibits some low-radar cross-section characteristics, despite the Navy’s decision to de-emphasize stealth in the RFP, compared with the MQ-25 program’s origins as an Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS). The frontal aspect of the Boeing prototype is classic stealth, including a top-of-fuselage shielded engine intake.
But unlike earlier Boeing UAVs designed for low-observability (eg. the X-45A/C and the Phantom Ray), the company’s MQ-25 candidate has a separate large and shallow V-tail. The image does not show the extent of the wing, or the wing-fold, but the blended wing-body design has obvious potential for increased fuel carriage. The RFP for the MQ-25 includes a requirement to offload 14,000 pounds of fuel to receiver aircraft at a range of 500 nautical miles from the host aircraft carrier.
Boeing will likely be in competition with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) and Lockheed Martin for the MQ-25 engineering and manufacturing demonstration contract, which could be worth $2.5 billion. GA-ASI is proposing the Sea Avenger, a version of the jet-powered Predator-C that the CIA has already acquired in small numbers. Lockheed Martin has revealed only a partial image of its proposal, showing a refueling pod on a pylon.
Northrop Grumman has decided not to compete for the MQ-25 requirement, despite previously receiving risk-reduction contracts from the Navy, as did Boeing, GA-ASI and Lockheed Martin. Northrop Grumman is the only airframer to have demonstrated expertise in UAV operations from aircraft carriers, during the X-47B program. It has been reported that the company did not want to accept the fixed-price engineering and manufacturing demonstration contract that the Navy is offering.