Pentagon Watchdog Warns US Navy Is Moving Too Quickly on MQ-25 Military Plans
A top Pentagon watchdog has expressed concern that the US Navy is moving too quickly on its military plans regarding the MQ-25 Stingray tanker aircraft, and inviting new risks in doing so, in a new report. The US military has announced that Boeing will receive an additional $36 million to support continued development of the MQ-25, specifically to help “mitigate component obsolescence” in six subsystems as part of a preliminary design review.
The US Navy has chosen Boeing’s design as the winner of the Carrier Based Air Refueling System (CBARS) competition in 2018, with a plan to acquire 76 MQ-25As. The US Navy has announced plans to make critical production decisions for the MQ-25 program before conducting testing and evaluation to verify that the program meets operational capability requirements. The concerns raised by the Pentagon’s watchdog center around the decision to make critical production decisions without performing developmental test and evaluation, and initial operational test and evaluation, which increases the risk that the MQ-25 program will not meet operational capability requirements and could lead to delays and increased program costs.
The MQ-25 program is a Category 1B defense major acquisition program with an estimated cost of $16.5 billion. The Navy only has two stated operational requirements for the MQ-25, the first of which is that it be capable of operating from both Nimitz and Ford class aircraft carriers. The second requirement, redacted in the new DODIG report, has been disclosed in a separate Selected Acquisition Report which includes a requirement for the Stingray to be able to offload at least 14,000 pounds of fuel up to 500 nautical miles away from the carrier.
The primary objective of the MQ-25A is to help extend the effective range of the carrier air wing and eliminate the need for some of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in existing aircraft carrier air wings to perform tanker duties. Additionally, as the first CVN-based unmanned aerial vehicle, the MQ-25A is a crucial step for the Navy to meet its goal of having 60 percent of its unmanned CVN air wings by 2040. The Navy’s objective is to deploy the MQ-25A to CVN as quickly as possible to meet these goals.
The US Navy has stated that it has taken a number of steps to mitigate risks associated with the MQ-25 program. This includes extensive testing using a real flying demonstrator called T1, as well as extensive digital engineering tools. However, there is growing skepticism about the true benefits of digital engineering tools in military aircraft development. The Navy has provided the DODIG with updated risk assessments and timelines, but the Pentagon’s watchdog believes that the service needs to further review its plans to avoid further delays and cost increases.
The MQ-25 program has already been significantly delayed and costs have increased due to a number of factors, including impacts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial batch of pre-production Stingrays was expected to be delivered by the end of 2022, but the timeline has been pushed back to 2026, with the Navy making efforts to resolve its concerns.
Boeing announced in September that the first MQ-25A for the Navy had rolled off the production line and into static ground testing. The Navy awarded Boeing a $36 million modification to an existing contract for the MQ-25, adding scope to provide non-recurring engineering for a preliminary design review of six subsystems to mitigate component obsolescence in support of initial low-rate production of the MQ-25 Stingray for the Navy.
In conclusion, the MQ-25 program faces challenges related to potential delays and increasing costs, but the Navy is actively working to address these issues. The program is essential to the Navy’s long-term goals, and it is crucial that the MQ-25A be deployed to CVN as quickly as possible. The Pentagon’s watchdog is closely monitoring the program and has called for additional review of the Navy’s plans to mitigate risks and avoid further delays in receiving the MQ-25A.