Magazine article National Defense

Navy Puts Procurement of Carrier Drone on Fast Track

Magazine article National Defense

Navy Puts Procurement of Carrier Drone on Fast Track

Article excerpt

The Navy is expediting its effort to acquire a carrier-launched unmanned tanker, as service officials seek to usher in a new era of naval aviation.

The MQ-25 Stingray would enable carrier-based strike aircraft such as the F/A-18 Super Hornet to have greater range.

"We need to get [the MQ-25] to the fleet as quick as we can so we can start learning about that manned-unmanned teaming and integrate that into the air wing," Naval Air Systems Command Commander Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker said at a recent conference.

The plane is also to be equipped with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

Four companies--Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics--were recently awarded contracts to conduct risk reduction activities in support of the program. The work includes refinement of concepts and development of trade space for requirements generation in advance of the engineering and manufacturing development phase.

Boeing, Lockheed and General Atomics were awarded $43 million each. Northrop Grumman received a $35 million contract. The work is expected to be completed by October 2017.

The concept refinement work will inform the request for proposals for engineering and manufacturing development. An RFP release is slated for the summer of 2017, and a contract award is expected in 2018, according to Navy officials.

"The tanking mission will govern the aircraft configuration design trades, which will prioritize better tanking capability over the secondary ... ISR mission," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in an Aug. 24 memo clarifying the aim of the program.

The main objective in the early phase is to identify key system technologies, attributes and approaches that balance cost, schedule and performance, he added.

"We'll go through the development of the alternatives looking at what capabilities different vendors might bring to address that operational need," Robert Kimble, the deputy program executive officer for unmanned aviation at NAVAIR, said at a recent industry conference.

There is a sense of urgency. The service has created a maritime accelerated capabilities office, or MACO, to provide "a speed lane" in the acquisition process. Richardson and Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition Sean Stackley function as "the board of directors" and will provide direct oversight of the office's activities.

The MQ-25 is one of two initial programs under the office's purview, along with the large displacement unmanned underwater vehicle program.

The projects "will be conducted on accelerated timelines, require unique industrial interactions and leverage related activities of other government agencies and organizations," said Vice Adm. David Johnson, Stackley's principal military deputy.

"We must continue to innovate and improve the speed at which we field these systems," he added.

The Navy hopes to have an operational MQ-25 by the early 2020s. The service is keen to use the Stingray to hone its manned-unmanned teaming operating concept, whereby drones would partner with manned platforms to conduct various mission sets.

Designing a drone that could perform both tanking and intelligence-gathering missions shouldn't be too difficult, said John Vinson, the manager of next-generation unmanned aircraft systems at Lockheed Martin.

"I don't see huge challenges in being able to do an ISR capability on an aircraft that has the payload capacity to do tanking," he said.

Lockheed's manned S-3 Viking carrier-launched aircraft was capable of conducting reconnaissance missions while on anti-submarine patrol. It could also deploy weapons and was used as a tanker, he noted.

"It was, if you will, a truck that we could hang a lot of capabilities on," Vinson said. Similarly, Lockheed could design an unmanned aerial vehicle "that has the capacity to hang a lot of systems that the Navy may want to use in the future. …

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