Northrop has announced that it is pulling out of the competition to build the Navy’s MQ-25 unmanned tanker. As you recall, there were four competitors: Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. Northrop’s explanation is cryptic, to say the least. Here’s the statement from Northrop CEO Wes Bush.
“When we’re looking at one of these opportunities, let me be clear, our objective is not just to win. …we really look hard at executability under the terms of [requests for proposals] that come out to make sure that we can execute.” (1)
So, something in the Request For Proposals (RFP) made Northrop believe that they couldn’t meet the requirements. This is all the more odd given that the RFP was structured to have very few actual requirements. In fact, the only requirement that has been revealed is the informal statement by Navy personnel that the tanker would deliver around 15,000 lbs of fuel at 500 miles.
Northrop was assumed to propose their X-47 as the basis for their tanker. In fact, given that the X-47 was used in actual carrier landing and takeoff tests, Northrop was assumed to have a huge advantage in the competition. That they would feel that advantage was insufficient makes their decision even harder to understand. If Northrop’s actual carrier UAV operational experience isn’t adequate to meet the RFP, what does that say about the other competitor’s offerings and capabilities?
Another possibility is that the X-47 is simply incapable of meeting the fuel capacity and distance requirements. The flying wing type of UAV may be simply unsuited for the task. Perhaps the stealthy body size and shape does not allow sufficient fuel carriage?
It is also possible that Northrop felt that a stealthy flying wing would be inherently more expensive than a more conventional wing-fuselage-tail design and unable to compete on a cost basis. If so, it’s worth noting that the General Atomics design, the only other design we’ve seen, is a conventional design and may hold a cost advantage.
Recall, also, that we’ve discussed the vulnerability of non-stealthy support aircraft so stealth may be an attractive feature in an aircraft that is expected to operate hundreds of miles from the carrier and within range of enemy aircraft and long range missiles. The Chinese are developing a very long range air-to-air missile for the explicit purpose of attacking high value support aircraft like the E-2 Hawkeye, AWACS, P-8, tankers, etc.
The other interesting aspect of this is that this is the second occurrence of major defense firms pulling out of contract competition. You’ll recall that the Navy’s competition for the over the horizon (OTH) anti-ship missile saw all but one of the competitors pull out after the RFP was released. We discussed this at the time (see, “LRASM Drops Out Of OTH Competition”) and noted that it was a development with several negative consequences, not the least of which was that the lack of competition was an invitation to price gouging by the only remaining competitor. At the time, I speculated that the Navy had pre-selected the company that they wanted to win the OTH competition and had written the RFP so as to ensure that only that company could meet the requirements. Could this be a similar case? Has the Navy already pre-selected a winner? If more companies pull out of the tanker competition then this may be what’s happening.
|X-47 - Out!|
I would hate to think that pre-selecting competition winners, if that’s what’s happening, is the latest Navy trend given all the negatives associated with such a practice. Had the OTH competition fiasco not just occurred, I wouldn’t give Northrop’s actions, in this case, much thought but now this looks suspiciously like a trend towards pre-selecting winners.
Of course, it’s also quite possible that this is just a business/investment/financial decision by Northrop, pure and simple, in which case there’s nothing to be seen here and we can all move on.
We’ll keep a close eye on this competition and see what develops.
(1)USNI News website, “Northrop Grumman Drops Out of MQ-25A Stingray Competition”, Sam LaGrone,