The Navy late Thursday said that the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned tanker program intends to eventually deliver 72 aircraft after the initial four test aircraft and the program is accelerating the Initial Operating Capability (IOC) by two years to 2024.

On Thursday the Navy awarded Boeing [BA] an $805 million engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) contract for the design, development, fabrication, test, verification, and certification of four MQ-25A unmanned air vehicles over two rival bids (Defense Daily, Aug. 30).

Boeing shows off its prototype for the MQ-25 unmanned carrier tanker offering to reporters. (Photo: Defense Daily)
Boeing shows off its prototype for the MQ-25 unmanned carrier tanker offering to reporters. (Photo: Defense Daily)

The Stingray program will mainly be used for Navy aerial refueling, based off aircraft carriers, and has a secondary use with limited intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

The largest share of the work will occur in St. Louis (45.5 percent) and the contract will be completed by August 2024. 

James Geurts, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition (ASN-RDA), told reporters that the Navy’s position going in to the program was research and development (R&D) and procurement combined would cost over $13 billion for 72 total vehicles.

He noted the $13 billion figure has not yet been informed or updated by the competition with “very robust designs” and the Navy will “update that estimate as we work our way through the program and work our way through the detail design and into construction.”

Geurts said the notional breakout of that number was $3.8 billion in R&D and about $9.5 billion in production.

The Navy is shooting for the first test vehicles’ in-flight test to occur in fiscal year FY 2021 while it pushed up the IOC date from 2026 to 2024.

After the first airframes are tested, Geurts acknowledged the Navy will still need to finish carrier suitability testing to get the MQ-25 on the ships, modify carriers to support the MQ-25 and support its control station, train air maintainers and pilots, and get the logistics in place.

“So 2024 sounds a long way away but there’s a lot of work we’re going to have to do to get there between 2024 and now,” he said. “But we’ll be flying much sooner than that.”

Geurts said the four test aircraft are not included in the final 72 total vehicles, but the contract does include competitively awarded options for up to three system design and test aircraft (SDTA). The SDTA options normally become the IOC aircraft and would be the first three of 72 Stingrays. The Navy prices the options price at about $28 million per aircraft on average. These SDTA options are not included in the capped $805 million award.

Considering the EMD submission reached $3.4 billion, Geurts said the competitive process got the EMD program “scoped now significantly under our cost estimate, based on the competitive results.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told reporters he thinks the Navy might even get to IOC faster than 2024.

“Actually, we’re on a schedule to get this done as fast as we can,” he said. “So if we can pull this even further to the left, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Geurts highlighted one hallmark of the MQ-25 program is that the Navy only had two key performance parameters: technical performance and cost. While he was unwilling to explain what made Boeing’s bid more attractive before the industry debriefs,  the Navy’s goal was to be very clear about what is important and then give industry a lot of latitude to be innovative.

On balance, Boeing “was selected as the best value of the competitors,” Geurts said.

Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, highlighted the company made an investment and is getting ready for its model’s first flight.

“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,” Caret said in a statement.

When asked about the possibility of delays from potential protests from the losing bids, Richardson said “any delay affects the IOC date because we’re trying to get to IOC as fast as we can.”

Lockheed Martin [LMT], one of the losing entries, said it was disappointed in the Navy’s decision. 

“We await the customer debrief to learn more about why our offering was not selected. Any decisions about next steps will be made following that debrief,” the company said.

General Atomics, the other losing bidder, did not return a call seeking comment. 

Separately, Richardson said while the Navy sees the benefits of efficiently and effectively putting an ISR package on the Stingray while it conducts its tanking mission, they did not want to make it a key point.

Boeing's MQ-25A Stingray prototype
Boeing’s MQ-25A Stingray prototype

“It was very, very important that that did not become a driver in terms of certainly its evaluation – it’s not why we’re bringing this on board.”

However, the CNO added, “having said that, these days it’s pretty easy to integrate some ISR capability and so we’ll take a look at what those possibilities are as we move forward.”

Rear Adm. Brian Corey, program Executive Officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons (PEO U&W), agreed.

“We’ve put ISR packages in a lot of different platforms and so each of the offerors were required to give us some ISR that the CNO and the requirements crew made very clear to us and to industry that that was not going to be a cost or schedule driver.”

Geurts said having this initial MQ-25A as a common configuration will allow the Navy to possibly add new capabilities later.

“So I think we have some flexibility on the platform. I would say more importantly we have flexibility into the programmatic and technical architecture for any platforms we bring on board.”

Richardson said that “open architecture is the approach.”

The CNO also highlighted he thinks the decision will be recognized as a historic event and is important both operationally and with what the acquisitions team learned to use in other programs.

“From an operational standpoint, this will really be getting our feet into the water in a big way in terms of integrating unmanned and manned into the future air wing. And then it brings a tremendous capability into 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,” Richardson said.

He said the carrier air wings will not only get extended range due to the tankers, but more striking power by “liberating” the F/A-18s from tanking.

Richardson said he hopes the MQ-25 is a model for future programs as it demonstrated clear requirements definition, early engagement with industry, and “talking through sort of 21st century acquisition matters such as data rights and everything else.”

Geurts underscored the accomplishment of completing the Stingray source selection process in a speedy nine months because anything under one year “is a pretty phenomenal accomplishment, and I think a good balance of acting with a sense of urgency but not acting without a close examination of each one of the offeror’s products.”

The CNO said he believes the current frigate competition will adopt many of the same useful principles.