The Navy has issued a draft Request For Proposals (RFP) to industry for the planned carrier based unmanned aerial tanker, the MQ-25A Stingray, and the RFP has some interesting points and aspects to it.
First, the RFP has only two key performance parameters (KPP) and both are generic to the point of useless. They are:
- Carrier compatibility – the aircraft must be able to operate from a carrier and use existing catapult and recovery systems. Duh.
- Mission tanking – the aircraft must be capable of aerial tanking. Again, duh.
The Navy believes this will provide greater flexibility to industry and, ultimately, to the Navy when it comes to the design of the aircraft. Personally, I think this approach is wrong. I think performance parameters need to be specified – speed, range, endurance, reliability, fuel capacity, etc. Without those specs, there’s no guarantee that you’ll wind up with an aircraft that can do the job. Frankly, this is just the Navy passing design responsibility off to industry in an attempt to avoid accountability if the program tanks (no pun intended).
On the plus side, the Navy is indicating that development should be minimized by using nothing but existing technology.
“…the new airframe effort is less about developing new tech and more about mixing and matching existing systems to make unmanned tanking a reality on the carrier.” (1)
If the Navy can actually hold to this intent, this is a monumental leap forward in common sense acquisition practice. There is nothing about aerial refueling that requires the development of new technology. If the Navy can hold to this intent, the resulting costs and timeline should be quite reasonable. Unfortunately, the Navy has a very hard time resisting gold plating programs after they’ve started. It will be interesting to see whether they can restrain themselves.
On a related note, if the Navy can actually hold to this intent, it will make an interesting contrast to the Air Force’s tanker program (admittedly, the two programs are vastly different in scope and mission) which has been a dismal failure and this program could actually become an example for how to do acquisition. As I said, we’ll take a wait and see approach.
I’m extremely ambivalent about an unmanned tanker. Most of the claims for it are suspect or false.
- It won’t reduce manning much, if at all. For every pilot removed from the cockpit, one has to take their place at a controller of some sort.
- It offers no greater endurance because its endurance will be limited by the size of the fuel tanks it will carry. Once the tanks are empty, the aircraft will have to return to the carrier just like a manned tanker would.
- It offers no cost savings. An aircraft is an aircraft. If you want a plane that can travel x miles, at y speed it’s going to cost the same whether there’s a seat in it or not. In fact, when the additional shipboard control stations are factored into the cost, it will probably be more expensive.
- There will be inevitable in-flight aircraft failures, as with any aircraft, and without a crew to deal with it and attempt to remedy it, many aircraft may be forced to abort their missions.
- UAVs have a solid historical record of crashing with some regularity. The data on this is quite clear. While losing a UAV is no big deal, losing a tanker affects many aircraft and missions.
Honestly, I don’t really see any concrete advantage to an unmanned tanker. The only “advantage” is that the Navy gains experience in operating unmanned aircraft in preparation for the time when they try to operate unmanned combat aircraft and, to be honest, this alone may be sufficient justification for the unmanned tanker.
Overall, I like the start to this program. I’m quite pleased that the Navy is going to at least attempt to produce an aircraft using nothing but existing technology for a routine mission. If they can hold to the intent, it will be a major accomplishment and could set a pattern for future acquisitions.
(1)USNI News website, “Navy Issues New MQ-25A Stingray Draft RFP to Industry Ahead of Final RFP in the Fall”, Sam LaGrone,