Navy Folding MQ-25A Tanker Into Larger Unmanned Campaign; Test Flights to Resume This Summer

 In Sea, Forces & Capabilities, U.S. Navy

Tests of Boeing’s MQ-25A Stringray prototype in St. Louis. Boeing Image

The first unmanned tanker to oper­ate from an air­craft car­ri­er is set to be the first major pro­gram in the Navy’s emerg­ing unmanned cam­paign plan, the service’s top acqui­si­tion offi­cer told reporters on Thursday.

The Boeing-built MQ-25A Stingray will be a key ele­ment in the Navy’s early iter­a­tions of its unmanned cam­paign plan – the latest direc­tion on how the service’s devel­op­ing unmanned aerial, sur­face and under­sea plat­forms will oper­ate in con­cert, James Geurts said.

“We’ve got a fairly large cam­paign going on right now. How do we really inte­grate all of these unmanned assets, under the water, on the water, above the water holis­ti­cal­ly across the fleet?” Geurts told USNI News.
“[MQ-25A] is going to be one of the first major sys­tems out there and we’re now weav­ing that into this larger unmanned cam­paign plan.”

The latest plan is designed to set goals for indi­vid­ual plat­forms to create cri­te­ria to see if the unmanned sys­tems fit into achiev­ing those objec­tives, USNI News under­stands.

“What I’ve found is that we didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have the rigor that’s required across a number of pro­grams that would bring those togeth­er in a way that’s driven toward objec­tives with mile­stones,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told Defense News.

The basic objec­tive of the MQ-25A is to pro­vide relief for the Navy’s fleet of Super Hornets that have been the de facto tanker for embarked car­ri­er air wings. In the recent past, up to 25 to 30 per­cent of the flight hours of Super Hornets have been devot­ed to serv­ing as a tac­ti­cal refu­el­er for the air wings. The MQ-25A is planned to deliv­er up to 15,000 pounds of fuel at 500 nau­ti­cal miles, USNI News under­stands.

The narrow mis­sion of the MQ-25A is scaled back from a more ambi­tious pro­gram a decade ago that would have cre­at­ed a low-observ­able, long-range unmanned strike air­craft that would have launched from the car­ri­er. Two Northrop Grumman X‑47 pro­to­types suc­cess­ful launched and recov­ered from USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) in 2013. Naval Air Systems Command can­celed the test­ing pro­gram in 2015.

The Navy has planned to buy 72 Stingrays with a total cost of about $13 bil­lion as part of a plan to alle­vi­ate the refu­el­ing burden on its exist­ing fleet of F/A‑18F Super Hornets. Boeing won a $805 mil­lion con­tract in 2019 for the first four airframes and a $84.7 mil­lion con­tract mod­i­fi­ca­tion in April for three more air­frames.

Boeing’s pro­to­type, which the com­pa­ny built for the can­celed Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) com­pe­ti­tion, flew for the first time last year.

MQ-25 T1 Aerial Refueling Store (ARS) – ‘the pod’ installation at the AVMATS Hangar, Mascoutah, IL, near Boeing St. Clair Site. Boeing Photo

Last week, Boeing announced it had installed the aerial refu­el­ing system on its pro­to­type T1 MQ-25A at the company’s test site at the MidAmerica Airport in Illinois near St. Louis, Mo.

“When we resume flight test­ing later this year, we’ll have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to gather test points about the aero­dy­nam­ics of that pod and the soft­ware com­mands that con­trol it – all hap­pen­ing well before we deliv­er the Navy’s first MQ-25 jet with the same pod,” Dave Bujold, the company’s MQ-25 pro­gram direc­tor said in a state­ment.
“That early test­ing and early soft­ware devel­op­ment is a big part of sup­port­ing the Navy’s goal to get MQ-25 to the fleet as quick­ly as pos­si­ble.”

Geurts said the Navy and Boeing were taking advan­tage of the flying pro­to­type as the engi­neer­ing design and man­u­fac­tur­ing work for the early pro­duc­tion MQ-25As was begin­ning.

“That is a tremen­dous asset that the team has… Getting it back up in the air with refu­el­ing pod and doing more flight test­ing ear­li­er, I think is a great ben­e­fit to the pro­gram,” he told USNI News.
“It’s a good exam­ple of the team taking advan­tage of an oppor­tu­ni­ty to take this kind of early bird get it in flight, learn lessons, figure out dif­fer­ent facets of the pro­gram.”

A Navy offi­cial told USNI News that “air­craft com­po­nents are already moving through the supply chain, the engine is being assem­bled and land­ing gear drop test­ing is com­plete.”

The Navy had hoped to field the air­craft on car­ri­ers by 2024, but backed off an esti­mat­ed field­ing date last year.

In par­al­lel, the Navy is also installing the con­trol sys­tems on the car­ri­ers needed to oper­ate the air­craft.

The Navy will upgrade four air­craft car­ri­ers with the Unmanned Carrier Aviation Mission Control System (UMCS). Bush will be the first car­ri­er to receive the UMCS upgrade and is cur­rent­ly in a main­te­nance avail­abil­i­ty at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Va.

USNI source|articles

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