MQ-25 Stingray tanker delays and risks emerge

In a new report, a top Pentagon watchdog raised concerns that the U.S. Navy is moving too quickly with its plans for the MQ-25 Stingray refueling drone and is inviting new risks in doing so. Separately, the US military announced that Boeing would receive an additional $36 million to support continued development of the MQ-25, specifically to help “mitigate component obsolescence” of six subsystems as part of a preliminary design review.

Un démonstrateur Boeing, connu sous le nom de T1, qui a été utilisé pour soutenir le développement du MQ-25, ravitaille un avion d'attaque interarmées F-35C de la Marine lors d'un test.  <em>USN</em>” src=”″ style=”object-fit :cover;object-position:center;position:absolute;inset:0;width:100%;height:100%;max-width:100%”/></div>
<p><span class=A Boeing demonstrator, known as the T1, which was used to support the development of the MQ-25, refuels a Navy F-35C joint strike strike aircraft during a test. USN

“Navy officials, in coordination with the Program Office, plan to make critical production decisions for the MQ-25 program before the Program Office conducts tests and evaluations to verify that the program meets operational capability requirements,” the review summary states. “Making critical production decisions without performing DT&E (developmental testing and evaluation) and IOT&E (initial operational testing and evaluation) increases the risk that the MQ-25 program will not meet operational capability requirements, delaying MQ deployment -25A on CVNs and increase program costs.

The Navy selected Boeing’s model as the winner of the Carter-Based Aerial-Refueling System (CBARS) competition in 2018 and the current plan is to acquire 76 MQ-25As. This total includes seven representative production examples, 12 low-rate initial production (LRIP) models and another 57 across a number of full-rate production batches, according to DODIG.

Nimitz And Ford Class aircraft carriers are also expected to receive a ground control station where human operators can supervise MQ-25 flights as part of the full program. Additional ground control stations will be installed elsewhere for testing, training and other purposes.

Éléments du poste de contrôle au sol du MQ-25.  <em>USN via DODIG</em>” src=”″ style=”object-fit:cover;object -position:center;position:absolute;inset:0;width:100%;height:100%;max-width:100%”/></div>
<p><span class=Elements of the MQ-25 ground control station. USN via DODIG

“The MQ-25 program is a major Category 1B defense acquisition program with an estimated cost of $16.5 billion, including $3.1 billion for research, development, test and evaluation , $12.6 billion for procurement and $747.5 million for military construction,” according to the DODIG opinion. Navy budget documents estimate that the average unit cost of each MQ-25 will be just under $150 million, not including various ancillary items.

“The Deputy Secretary of Defense has designated the MQ-25 program as a pilot program for reducing key performance parameters, allowing the Navy to focus on fewer primary operational capability requirements than the six required during the designation of the program,” adds the DODIG report.

The Navy has only two stated operational requirements for the MQ-25, at least forward, one of which is that it be capable of operating from both Nimitz And Ford class aircraft carrier. The second is particularly redacted in the new DODIG report.

A separate selected acquisition report on the MQ-25 program in late fiscal year 2022, which the Pentagon released earlier this year, includes unexpurgated details on the second requirement. The Stingray must be capable of unloading at least 14,000 pounds of fuel, and hopefully up to 16,000 pounds, up to 500 nautical miles from the carrier.

The stated primary purpose of the MQ-25A is to help extend the effective range of the carrier air wing and eliminate the need for some F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in existing carrier air wings to perform resupply tasks, according to the Navy. The first element here extends the carrier’s range and helps keep it away from enemy defenses, both of which are particularly critical in a future high-profile conflict in the Pacific against China. Relieving the Super Hornets of their refueling duties will separately help reduce the burden on those aircraft, which the service hopes will result in cost savings and increased readiness for the entire Super Hornet fleet.

“Additionally, as the first CVN-based unmanned aerial vehicle, the MQ-25A is a critical step for the Navy to achieve its goal of having 60 percent of its CVN air wings unmanned by 2040.” , notes the DODIG report. “Therefore, the Chief of Naval Operations stated that it is of critical importance to deploy the MQ-25A to the CVNs as quickly as possible.”

CVN is the abbreviation that the Navy and many other world navies use to refer to nuclear-powered aircraft carriers like the Nimitz And Ford Classes.

Many of the specific dates and timelines that DODIG is concerned about were redacted in its report yesterday. However, it is clear that the Pentagon’s watchdog is concerned that the timeline the Navy is working with could be dangerously truncated.

“Since Navy officials did not conduct DT&E prior to the MS-C (Milestone C Production) decision and IOT&E prior to the IOC (Initial Operating Capability) decision, there is an increased likelihood that the program MQ-25 does not meet its operational capability requirements,” the report states bluntly. “Additionally, there is a risk that when DT&E and IOT&E occur, after production begins and after the Navy declares IOC , respectively, the program identifies costly problems and delays the deployment of the MQ-25A to the CVNs. “.

L'USS <em>Gerald R. Ford</em>.  USN” src=”″ style=”object-fit:cover;object- position:center;position:absolute;inset:0;width:100%;height:100%;max-width:100%”/></div>
<p><span class=The A.S.S. Gerald R. Ford. USN

The Navy says it has taken a number of steps to mitigate many of these risks, according to the new DODIG study. This includes extensive testing using a real flying demonstrator, called T1, as well as extensive digital modeling and simulation.

It is worth noting here that digital engineering tools have been touted within the US military and private industry as having the potential to revolutionize the process of developing complex systems, including aircraft, in recent years. However, although digital engineering has proven to be very useful, there is now growing skepticism about the true scale of the benefits it offers. The T-7A Red Hawk jet trainer that Boeing is developing for the Air Force is often held up as a model of digital engineering, but it has also become a key example cited by critics of incapacity of these tools to live up to the hype.

DODIG says the Navy has provided it with updated risk assessments and timelines, but believes the service needs to further review its plans.

“We are requesting the Navy to confirm that the program office will provide updated risk management documentation regarding MQ-25A delays, which would include identifying any risks associated with additional delays in receiving MQ-25A and the risk that the MQ-25 program will not meet planned deployment dates,” the report released yesterday said.

What is certainly not up for debate is that the MQ-25 program, for a variety of reasons, including impacts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, has already been significantly delayed and costs have increased. When Boeing won the CBARS competition in 2018, the Navy was expected to reach IOC with the MQ-25 in 2024. That timeline was first pushed back to 2025, then again this year was pushed back to 2026. The DODIG report said the latter delay was a result of the Navy’s efforts to try to resolve its concerns in early 2023.

“We are encouraged that the Navy has adopted a more traditional acquisition strategy, delayed the MS-C decision and LRIP contract, and is continually assessing and communicating programmatic risks,” the DODIG audit said.

In the past, it was hoped that the first batch of pre-production Stingrays would begin delivery by the end of 2022. Boeing only announced in September that the first MQ-25A for the Navy had rolled out of production. the production line and had passed static ground tests.

Additionally, yesterday the Pentagon announced that the Navy had awarded Boeing a modification to an existing MQ-25 contract, adding $36 million to the value.

“This modification adds the ability to provide one-time engineering for preliminary design review of six subsystems to mitigate component obsolescence in support of low-rate initial production of the MQ-25 Stingray for the Navy,” explained the Pentagon’s daily procurement notice. We don’t know what subsystems are involved, and component obsolescence can occur quickly for a variety of reasons, including the general speed at which new developments occur, especially with respect to computers and other electronic devices. At the same time, delays in the MQ-25 program thus far may have only exacerbated the risks that elements of the Stingray design will become obsolete before development is even complete.

Overall, much remains to be seen whether the Navy will be able to avoid further delays to the MQ-25 program and how much its total cost might increase. At the same time, the service has made no secret of its desire to deploy the Stingray, which is expected to provide immediate operational and budgetary benefits, and provide an important stepping stone in its broader unmanned transport aviation ambitions as soon as possible.

DODIG’s obvious concern is that the risks, at least as understood today, could outweigh the benefits of the MQ-25.

Gn bussni

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