Boeing's MQ-25 Prototype 'Ready to Fly' As Industry Awaits Contract Decision
ST. LOUIS — As the Navy considers three proposals to develop a new unmanned carrier-based tanker aircraft, Boeing is hoping that its “ready-to-fly” prototype — first built in 2014 — will give it the edge in the MQ-25 Stingray competition.
The company leveraged its own research-and-development dollars from a previous program to build an aircraft that ultimately met the requirements for the Stingray. It has already undergone numerous tests ahead of a source selection decision by the service, said Donald “BD” Gaddis, Boeing's MQ-25 program director.
“We have already demonstrated a lot of the functionality,” he told reporters April 5 during a media tour of the company’s facilities in St. Louis. “We have done almost everything short of flying, which we will do shortly after [contract] award.”
Naval Air Systems Command is pushing to award a fixed-price contract to one of the three competitors — Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems or Lockheed Martin — to develop and build four aircraft by the end of this summer, less than a year after proposals were sent in, he said.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson is “putting the pedal to the floor” to accelerate the MQ-25 development timeline, said Gaddis, a retired Navy flag officer who served as program executive officer for tactical airplanes.
“Normally it takes NAVAIR about 18 months to do a source selection like this. … They’re going to do it in six months,” he said. “When the CNO said he wanted to accelerate the schedule, he meant it.”
The "T-1" flying prototype could give Boeing an edge in the three-way competition as the company has invested its own money to reduce risk up front, Gaddis said. “Normally you’re talking about risk reduction for your [low-rate initial production] airplanes. … We have pushed that whole value equation way, way to the left."
Lockheed Martin and General Atomics have so far only revealed design concepts. Boeing and GA-ASI revealed their designs in late December, while Lockheed first unveiled its MQ-25 concept to Aviation Week in March. Northrop Grumman, which planned to pitch its X-47B aircraft, announced its withdrawal from the competition in October.
The Stingray program comes on the heels of an earlier initiative to develop the unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike, or UCLASS aircraft. That project was restructured in 2016 as stakeholders struggled to agree on mission requirements, Gaddis said.
Following the restructure, the Navy settled on the new unmanned carrier aviation aircraft and dubbed it MQ-25. Once fielded, it will conduct aerial refueling as a primary mission and provide some intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, according to service budget documents. The aircraft will extend the carrier air wing’s mission effectiveness range, mitigate some ISR shortfalls within the current carrier strike group and help preserve F/A-18E/F Super Hornet service life. Procurement is slated to begin in 2023, with initial operating capability expected in 2026, according to the Navy.
Before the transition to the MQ-25, Boeing made the decision to invest its own money in a prototype for the UCLASS effort, Gaddis said. It began building the airplane in 2012, and revealed it in 2014 as part of the preliminary design review stage of the program, he added.
“When the requirements morphed into big tanking, little ISR, this prototype was right in the wheelhouse,” he said.
Boeing's prototype aircraft for the Navy's MQ-25 Stingray competition Photo: Boeing
The T-1 aircraft was built in St. Louis, but Boeing has not decided on a manufacturing location should it win the contract, Gaddis said. This is the only prototype the company has built so far.
The main difference between the UCLASS design and the MQ-25 aircraft is the mission systems, he noted. The former was meant to have a much greater ISR capability, but that has been scaled back in the current model, he added. It will carry a 330-gallon fuel tank and a Cobham air refueling pod.
Boeing recently selected Rolls Royce to provide its AE 3007 engine for the airplane, which has over 73 million flight hours under its belt and is already installed on the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk and the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial systems, Gaddis said. The company has already conducted low- and high-power testing with the engine installed on the T-1 prototype.
The Navy awarded concept refinement and risk-reduction contracts in 2016 and the companies have been ahead with the statement of work, which included a deck handling demonstration completed in February, he noted. Boeing worked to make the demo as accurate as possible, painting a taxiway to replicate a carrier flight deck and performing various tasks with the prototype aircraft for the Navy to evaluate.
“We’re doing it with the brakes, the tires, the nose wheel steering, the launch port — all of that is the same” as what will be on the aircraft should Boeing win the competition, Gaddis said.
The company also plans to leverage advanced manufacturing techniques it honed for the Air Force’s forthcoming T-X advanced trainer competition, he said. Those techniques, along with having a prototype with an engine installed and ready to fly, will help Boeing meet the Navy’s accelerated schedule and justify the risk the company took ahead of the MQ-25 program, he added.
Despite the ambitious timeline, Boeing is feeling confident about the program’s prospects, Gaddis said.
In its fiscal year 2019 budget blueprint, the Navy requested funding for four MQ-25 aircraft across its five-year budget plan, also known as the future years defense program.
Gaddis said the budget request reflects the Navy’s priority to quickly award and develop the Stingray, and gives the competitors confidence about moving forward with the program.
“If you go back to the UCLASS days … not everyone was aligned, to say it nicely, between Congress and [the office of the secretary of defense] and the Navy and the fleet on the requirements,” he said. “But when you look at the president’s budget, … everybody’s aligned now.”Stay tuned for more Navy coverage from the Sea Air Space conference April 9-11 in National Harbor, Maryland.