The Sum of Their Fears: The MQ-25 Stingray
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” sayeth the Bard in a line with ominous foreboding. Such potent can also be read into the decision that Northrop Grumman was dropping out of the competition for the navy’s MQ-25 unmanned tanker. Concerns have been rising since Naval Aviation’s issuance of a request for proposals (RFP) for the MQ-25 Stingray aircraft earlier this month. The description of what is to be the navy’s first unmanned aircraft to operate from a supercarrier, a mission tanker, seemed “off” or “fuzzy” in numerous ways, but the actual document itself so far has not been publicly available for review and hope remained that its contents would provide a path to continued relevance for both the carrier air wing and the supercarriers they flew from. However, Northrop’s decision, along with rumors that another major aviation company is also considering withdrawing, represent fears that the situation within U.S. Navy acquisitions is far from healthy. In fact, it seems we are in for a repeat of a situation that played itself out earlier this year.
The Lowest Common Denominator
The U.S. Navy, through Naval Air and Naval Sea Systems Command, had asked industry for a new long-range surface-to-surface missile. It appeared that the navy had been much impressed with the Raytheon partnered, Norwegian built, Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile after test firing it from the Littoral Combat Ship USS Coronado in 2014 and was looking towards that missile to gradually replace its aging supply of Harpoon missiles over the next decade. A sole source selection process was not followed and an open competition commenced with Raytheon-Kongsberg, Lockheed-Martin and Boeing emerging as competitors. Earlier this year, both Boeing and Lockheed suddenly dropped out of the surface-to-surface competition within days of each other, each citing concerns that the process did not fairly value their designs. Lockheed politely stated, as part of its withdrawal statement, “As the current OTH-WS request for proposal (RFP) process refined over time, it became clear that our offering would not be fully valued.” Boeing went further, bluntly stating that the navy had refined its requirements downward throughout the process, and that they “would have to take a lot of capability out of this existing system and really deliver a less-capable weapon system.”
To be fair, Lockheed and Boeing were designing missiles for a parallel Naval Air Systems Command program that was intended to field a weapon to be launched from aircraft that was much more dynamic—and perhaps even more expensive—than what the Naval Sea Systems Command had in mind. However, it does appear that Naval Sea Systems Command “moved the football” and lowered requirement thresholds to a lowest common denominator in order to favor a simpler and less expensive design, which the Raytheon-Kongsberg missile closely resembled, thus opening the door for the purchase of more missile units at the same cost. The real disjuncture in this process was that the navy writ large could not come to an agreement on one set of requirements for its long-range, surface attack missile and hence created the conditions for two separate programs, with accompanying dual research and design, support and infrastructure costs. From the strategic budgetary level, the process looks broken and inefficient. Now with the MQ-25 program, it looks like the navy may be making a similar mistake again.
Evolution of the Carrier UAV