For Boeing, Its MQ-25 Win Is Sweet Vindication After Years Of Disappointment

The Navy’s selection of Boeing to move their MQ-25 Stingray carrier-based tanker drone initiative forward was surprising to some, but to the company’s St. Louis team, and especially their Phantom Works ‘bleeding edge’ design unit, it had to have been an incredibly validating moment. For more than a decade and a half, Boeing has tried to push semi-autonomous advanced unmanned combat air vehicle technology forward into an operational realm without success. Now they have a chance to change all that in a very substantial way. 

Boeing pioneered the unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) concept magnificently back in the early 2000s via the X-45A Joint Unmanned Combat Aircraft System demonstration program. What looked to be the dawn of a new era in air combat the likes of which we haven’t been seen since the introduction of the jet engine, astonishingly ended up withering on the vine. 

Boeing X-45A during testing near Edwards Air Force base in 2002., NASA 

The company even used its own funds to develop a very stealthy advanced UCAV follow-on to the X-45A, the X-45C Phantom Ray, but the USAF had no interest in procuring a version of the promising aircraft and the Navy chose Boeing’s competitor, Northrop Grumman, to develop their carrier-based UCAV demonstrators. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin seemed to make major inroads with similar technologies in the classified realm and Northrop Grumman is widely thought to have done the same, especially with strategic unmanned assets.

You can read all about Boeing’s pioneering role in the Pentagon’s bizarre UCAV saga and how UCAVs seemed to vanish from view just as they were about to revolutionize air combat forever in this past special feature of mine. But suffice it to say, Boeing seems to have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to advanced unmanned air vehicle systems, but all their work may finally pay off with the MQ-25. 

There is some misunderstanding about the MQ-25 program in general. Although the aircraft gets all the attention, maybe the most exciting and critical part of the program—and possibly the most important going forward for Boeing—is in the command, control, and networking ecosystem that will be developed for it. This is not intended to be a discreet system that will just work with the MQ-25 Stingray. It will be a new enterprise based around semi-autonomous drone operations that will grow and evolve with technology and capability demands. 

Even though the Navy will ‘own’ this capability, Boeing will be right there developing it alongside the seagoing force. So even though it won’t be proprietary to Boeing, the company will have a big leg up on the competition by evolving it to work with their MQ-25 drone and in ironing out all the operational interface kinks at sea and under real-world conditions.

So even though possible future tenders, like one for a UCAV that will leverage the same support infrastructure, can be competed openly—even the MQ-25 could be recompeted after the first four prototypes are built by Boeing—Boeing will undoubtedly have an advantage for these future opportunities due to their intimate knowledge of what will probably become one of the Navy’s most important integrated systems and software suites, ranking right up there with the Aegis Combat System.

Below is a document from 2014 that we received via FOIA regarding the command and control suite that was being developed for the earlier and more complex iteration of the Navy’s carrier-based combat drone program that morphed into MQ-25. It borrowed from software developed for Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8 Fire Scout and MQ-4 Triton. It isn’t perfectly clear if this work will be ported over directly for the MQ-25’s development and integration with Boeing’s aircraft, but by what we can tell it will. Regardless, the support architecture and concept of operations will be very similar if not identical.

Navy flight test pilot demonstrates functionality of new software for the future Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system at the program’s Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. lab. (2014 photo), USN

According to nearly every one of our sources, MQ-25 is not a popular initiative below the top rungs of the Navy’s command structure, and especially within elements of NAVAIR. Right now the Pentagon is flush with cash, but that will likely change in the years to come. Will the MQ-25 really live to see full rate production? That’s debatable, and pilot culture will be a major hurdle when it comes to its ability to survive. But if anything else, the universal backend aspect of the program will give it a better chance of avoiding the budgetary axe than anything else, including the attributes of one particular airframe.

This is all very exciting for Boeing, but one can only wonder if Northrop Grumman made a severe error by not competing for the MQ-25 contract. Just as Boeing blazed the trail for the UCAV concept, Northrop Grumman took it to sea and accomplished marvelous things with their X-47B demonstrators

Those aircraft were far more akin to a stealth, penetrating UCAV than a tanker. In other words, they were needlessly complex for the tanking mission set alone. But Boeing took their previously undisclosed UCAV demonstrator—an aircraft devised for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) requirement that the Navy ended up ditching for the far more dumbed down Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System initiative that turned into the MQ-25 program—and modified it for the MQ-25 tender. And they won.

One of Northrop Grumman’s highly promising X-47Bs refueling autonomously during one of its last tests in 2015., USN


We don’t know much about how the Navy came it its final decision as to who would be awarded the MQ-25 contract, but we do know that it chose the only contestant that had a prototype, and that prototype isn’t likely to be exactly representative of Boeing’s final MQ-25 configuration. And Boeing’s prototype has never flown. Northrop Grumman’s X-47Bs, on the other hand, have not only flown, they have operated from aircraft carriers at sea multiple times and in various conditions and even aerial refueled autonomously. 

Many predicted that the simplest solution that offered the most gas at a reasonable price would have won the MQ-25 competition. But the Navy went with Boeing’s UCAV derived offering that clearly has room for some tactical growth. The main element we still don’t know about is cost. Some have claimed Boeing offered the Navy a deal it couldn’t refuse. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t, but with the results of the contest now decided, it sure seems Northrop Grumman would have been able to make a very compelling case to the Navy by leveraging their X-47B demonstrators. 

You will find no bigger supporter of pouring funds into the almost non-existent high-end unmanned air combat space than me. Although the Navy should have been far more aggressive, pushing for a UCAV with tanker capability similar to UCLASS, the MQ-25 as it sits today is still a very exciting step in the right direction. It literally will lay the groundwork for more advanced carrier-based semi-autonomous drones in the future. And above all else, Boeing has worked incredibly hard and has walked a trail full of disappointment and frustration, seemingly undeservingly so, for many years to get to this unmanned aircraft opportunity. 

Boeing repeatedly claims that they are ready to make MQ-25 a success in their first corporate video following the contract award. If their history in the unmanned space tells us anything, they really do mean it. Now it’s time to finally prove that they can be a leader in this space, one that will redefine the meaning of air combat, whether you like it or not.

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler's passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.