Thursday, October 26, 2017

Northrop Pulls Out Of Unmanned Tanker Competition

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, 25-Oct-2017,


34 comments:

  1. N-G has a lot on its plate right now, especially the B-21, and they might have decided it would be took much to take on right now. That would be the opposite of LockMart who takes on everything and can't devote enough resources to the projects.

    I bet N-G wants to work on the F/A-XX bid because that would be a huge contract to get.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You could be right but, if so, why did they even bother to enter the competition. They had to have known their commitment levels prior to even beginning the process and they had to have know the level of resources it would take. So, that explanation, while it could be correct, doesn't quite make sense.

      Also, don't you find it odd that the OTH missile program and now this one are suddenly having drop outs among the competitor ranks? I don't remember seeing this happen before, at least not at the initial RFP stage.

      It could all be just simple business but the overall picture seems odd, don't you think?

      Delete
    2. It should be pointed out that by some accounts the only reason they got the X-47 contract was back room dealing. By all accounts, Boeing should have won the contract that became the X-47 as Boeing actually did almost all the R&D for the autonomous software that underpins the X-47 as part of their X-45 work. There are rumors that NG was given the X-47 work to prevent their R&D side from withering away, not because they had a better system.

      As NG now has a valuable and ongoing R&D contract in the form of the B-21, the value of the X-47/UCAS contract is of much less importance.

      It would be a bit of poetic justice if Boeing actually wins the contract as they have done the vast majority of the autonomous flight software work upon which the contract is founded.

      Delete
  2. I would guess that the fuel requirement would have forced NG to do a clean sheet design, and they dont have the resources for that right now (dont forget the Orbital ATK purchase). There were pictures showing the X-47 with a fuel pod mounted so it looks like they at least tried to see how much fuel they could get in it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. N-G also dropped out from the USAF T-X program for new trainer in February, another surprise as it will replace their N-G T-38.

    A pattern emerging, but unable to understand it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So you think it's a Northrop pattern rather than a Navy RFP and/or pre-selection issue? Hmm ... Well, you could be right. That's as plausible an explanation as any. I guess we'll see if any other competitors drop out of the tanker project.

      Delete
    2. It is entirely possible that the B-21 program is basically taking all their viable R&D resources which would make other contracts extremely risky.

      Delete
    3. "It is entirely possible that the B-21 program is basically taking all their viable R&D resources which would make other contracts extremely risky."

      Possible but then why did they even begin the tanker bid process if they knew they didn't have the resources? There's something more to this, I think.

      Delete
    4. From the press reports, it looks as if the Navy issued a Request for Information (RFI), received responses, and downselected from the responses to issue the final RFP to four companies.
      My guess is that NG responded to the RFI to keep their options open, got the final RFP and analyzed it, and decided to no-bid.

      There are lots of sound reasons to no-bid something once you get the details, and they’re not all technical—it may be that the Navy has structured the procurement such that NG doesn’t think they can make money on it.

      Delete
    5. This possibly ties back to the Pentagon's recent imposition of unilateral pricing for the F-35. Companies may have become gun shy about contracts where they fear the imposition of a price that may not be profitable. Just speculating.

      Delete
    6. "may be that the Navy has structured the procurement such that NG doesn’t think they can make money on it."

      And this is one of my main concerns - that the Navy has begun structuring contracts so as to ensure that only a pre-selected "winner" can be successful with the contract. This and the over-the-horizon missile contract are looking like the possible beginning of a new, and unwise, practice.

      Delete
  4. Considering that NG actually did the most live real flying, it is really strange and really surprised when I heard the news. I wonder if USN put pressure on them to drop out with all the work they got with B21....is DOD just trying to keep the industrial base somewhat busy and occupied and not just give all the major work to 1 company? It will be interesting to see who wins the trainer program, my bet is on BA-SAAB. Keeps one more design team around....if GA gets the tanker program, we know DOD is just trying to spread the work around...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting theory that I hadn't considered.

      Delete
    2. NG provide an airframe that mostly ran on Boeing developed software, fyi. There was a bit of a stink when NG got the X-47 contract after Boeing had developed the actual working software infrastructure as part of X-45. NG getting the contract basically delayed a carrier ready aircraft as the Boeing software stack had to be ported over to the NG airframe.

      Delete
  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My bet is they're putting everything in the B-21 contract, all the engineering and potential within the company is working prime on the B-21. And business reasoning of course thats why they're dropped out of the T-X as noted above.

      https://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/analyst-floats-theory-for-northrop-ceos-caution-on-433616/

      Delete
  6. NGC, at the top, is a financial holding company that cares only about return. The A/C sector presented that contract and their response to them and the holding company said why should I take on this risk?

    For that matter why would ANYONE take on a Navy A/C contract? Look at the MV-22 it almost broke the Contractors (thanks Lehman). Look at the F-35, who needs that headache? Look at the A-12 and the F-18E/F Acquisitionn Fiascos. WHO needs this headache.

    Remember Kelly Johnson's ,the head of the Lockheed skunk works, 15th Management rule: Starve before doing business with the damned Navy. They don't know what the hell they want and will drive you up a wall before they break either your heart or a more exposed part of your anatomy.

    'nuff said.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know the Navy is poor customer to deal with but is the Air Force that much better that Northrop is happy to have the B-21?

      Delete
    2. Well how much bad news do you hear about the B-2 and F-22? The technical glitches have been pretty minor in the press. The biggest issue is that they stopped production too soon.

      Not a bad problem to have. Not that I have any love for the Air Force Acquisition, they pay too much and gold plate their A/C but they know they want it gold plated and pay for it.

      Delete
    3. To be fair, the F-22 and B-2 were built in a time when civilian commentary (such as this blog and others) were much more limited or non-existent so problems were not publicized. That doesn't mean problems didn't exist. The B-2, in particular, was shrouded in a great deal more secrecy than, say, the F-35 production and testing.

      So, to be fair, your suggestion that the B-2/F-22 were better because we didn't hear about as many problems is not persuasive. They may have been better or they may have had as many or more problems and they just weren't made public.

      I don't follow AF acquisition and program control very closely but nothing I've seen suggests that have any better handle on things than the Army or Navy.

      Delete
    4. "I know the Navy is poor customer to deal with but is the Air Force that much better that Northrop is happy to have the B-21?"

      Its a fair and square multi billion contract WIN.

      So to jeopardize the most important thing in a company witch is the intelectual/engeneering human capability, by scattering it around "secondary" projects is not practical.

      I mean NG had a flying clean sheat design T-X contender and out of the sudden they decided to drop out, same thing with the X-47B, that was so fat the most tested UAV carrier based design.
      They sure have a strategy in the long run, but they're playing smart so far, concentrating on the most important ($$$) task the B-21.

      Delete
    5. P.S. Oh, and there might be sheer technical issues as to adapting the X-47B airframe as a tanker, remember those pics that surfaced when it had mounted refueling probes on it.

      Delete
    6. "the F-22 and B-2"
      Those two were top priority aircraft.. however something unexpected happened
      The Soviet Union collapsed, so they continued to thrive underfunded and slowly in the 90ties.

      Delete
    7. If they get the B-21 working within a reasonable time/budget they could use that in any F/A-XX contract. Maybe dust off some of the Super Duper F-14 concepts as well.

      Delete
    8. "Starve before doing business with the damned Navy. They don't know what the hell they want "

      I respect Kelly, but I always wondered about this. Grumman sure seemed to make it work for a long time.

      Delete
  7. N-G probably doesn't want to play because LO technology will never be part of this (the whole scheme sucks) and that's what their "no mission", stunt demonstrator, UCAV was. Grumman Iron Works is no longer part of their lexicon...This Stingray.. has to be a capable air vehicle that can carry big stuff and have a large flexible envelope to splurge and purge...

    OBTW, and be carrier suitable and airworthy. You know what I propose as the "vehicle" ad naseum. Yo CNOPS, did you notice there is that CNO date of 2019 again for this machine as yet undetermined?- LOL.

    Of course nothing will convince those .ppt level engineers (Marines in general) and those who believe glossies from Popular Mechanics/Science mags...

    b2

    ReplyDelete
  8. ComNavOps, I was looking at some articles regarding the MQ-25 stingray and it appears that General Atomics has shown their concept of the MQ-25

    http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/15037/general-atomics-is-the-first-to-show-off-its-mq-25-drone-tanker-design

    What's your take on this?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I mentioned in the post that GA has shown their offering and it's a conventional fuselage/wing/tail design.

      The Chinese are developing very long range air-to-air missiles for the express purpose of shooting down our high value, slow, non-stealthy assets like the AWACS, E-2 Hawkeye, P-8, and tankers. I see stealth as a necessary survivability feature for an aircraft that is going to operate, according to the Navy, 500 miles from the carrier and in the general direction of the enemy in order to provide useful refueling. Anything non-stealthy will be non-survivable.

      Also, every UAV I've seen share the common characteristic of being exceedingly small in the fuselage relative to their wingspan - a result of trying to maximize endurance. However, for a tanker, a small fuselage means small fuel load so I don't know whether any UAV can meet the requirements.

      The GA offering looks to have a very narrow, small fuselage. I wonder where the fuel is going to go?

      Lots of questions - few answers!

      Delete
    2. "
      The Chinese are developing very long range air-to-air missiles for the express purpose of shooting down our high value, slow, non-stealthy assets like the AWACS, E-2 Hawkeye"

      Off Topic; but is that even possible. You mention the issue for tankers and fuel capacity, but what about AWACS? How do you make something pumping out megawatts into the sky low observable??

      If we make a low observable honest to God fighter with a good fuel fraction that can establish a bubble of air superiority around the fighter, then things make more sense.

      The more I think about this the more I like your idea about having the Carrier escort the shooters.

      Delete
    3. "How do you make something pumping out megawatts into the sky low observable??"

      You don't. However, when it shuts down its radar to evade incoming missiles, a LO airframe and some decent speed to vacate the area would be survivability enhancements!

      Delete
  9. I don't understand why we must jump from a pilot and copilot to unmanned. Why not start halfway? A computerized system that requires no pilot, but still keeps a pilot on board to deal with odd things and emergencies. So we delete the co-pilot to save money, but don't go completely robo.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Because quite honestly, the pilot is a shitty payload. He's generally the limiting factor in every aspect of performance: endurance, agility, payload, volume, etc. And quite honestly for most missions, a pilot doesn't provide any benefit from already demonstrated autonomous systems that are now going on close to two decades old.

      Delete
  10. If the competition is “rigged” we’ll be able to tel by Boeing. Their x-45 drone scaled up would do well for this, and the company has supporters in the Navy. But if they drop out then it will probably be Lockheed because of their political block that continues to keep f-35 flying and the LCS floating. (Although I do think the Lockheed LCS is the better of the two wretched LCS classes).
    Boeing is the canary in the coal mine. GA would be more competitive for a USAF contract as they already have connections with their present drone contracts

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If history has any sense of karma, Boeing would win the contract, after all, they did basically all the autonomous flight development and by all account bringing in NG actually slowed down progress.

      Delete

Comments will be moderated for posts older than 30 days in order to reduce spam.