As the competition for the Navy’s MQ-25 tanker drone heats up between Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics, it would seem at least two of the contenders believe the decision could come down to which platform offers the most versatility beyond the contract’s requirements.
Last week, SOFREP reported on Boeing’s decision to base their MQ-25 competitor on their now defunct UCLASS prototype – a drone that was designed for carrier-based combat and reconnaissance operations, rather than refueling. While the Navy previously hoped to field a carrier-based drone for combat applications, the emphasis has shifted toward extending the operational range of carrier-based aircraft in recent months, in an effort to offset the capability gap presented by anti-ship missiles being fielded by nations like China and Russia.
In the face of this shift, Lockheed developed a new platform that seemed to be inspired by their previous research and development, while Boeing opted to simply re-tool their existing prototype. That method proved cost-effective, but may have been strategic as well, as it can be assumed that the Navy will soon be seeking unmanned aircraft for their carriers that are capable of more than simply refueling F/A-18s and F-35s. Boeing’s platform, originally designed for combat applications, could easily be refit back to its original specs to fill that role – offering the Navy two drone platforms for the price of one.
Now, it seems Lockheed Martin plans to do the very same, according to a video the company displayed at the Sea Air Space exhibition in Maryland last week.
The short film doesn’t show Lockheed’s MQ-25 in the flesh — because the company hasn’t built one yet — but it does offer a few new details about the planned design, including a retractable optical sensor beneath the wing and a glimpse at the control station Lockheed envisions sailors using aboard carriers. The most interesting part of the video, however, came at the end, when Lockheed unveiled a number of different potential variations on their MQ-25 design that included arming it and even what would appear to be a reduced radar signature model that could employ some level of stealth capabilities.
That stealthy variant, which appeared on screen along with the words, “future mission flexibility” and “survivability,” seems to show all external antennas removes from the flying wing design and a different color scheme. It seems likely that the new paint job isn’t simply an exercise is decor, but likely represents a coating of radar absorbing material similar to that employed on America’s stealthy (and not so stealthy) fighters already in the skies today.
The F-22 and F-35 were both purposely designed with a reduced radar signature in mind, learning on radar absorbing coatings to add to their overall stealthy approach, but even the Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornets have received a similar coating in an effort to reduce the aircraft’s signature ever so slightly. Unlike the stealthy fifth generation fighters, that coating won’t stop enemy radar stations from spotting inbound Super Hornets, but it may delay it and interfere with radar-locking weapons platforms.
Based on the flying wing design of Lockheed’s MQ-25 entrant, it could have some stealth capabilities through its design alone without the extra external antennas and the like. With a radar absorbing coating, it would likely be even more capable in contested airspace, but likely would lack sufficient stealth to serve as an offensive platform in heavily defended areas.
The Navy is hoping to move quickly on their drone refueler program, but with Boeing and Lockheed already touting the secondary capabilities of their platforms, it’s hard to deny that they seem to be competing for another contract that has yet to develop: unmanned, carrier based, offensive air frames.
General Atomics, on the other hand, has chosen to field a more traditional design that lacks inherent stealth capabilities – which may reduce its chances at victory. However, General Atomics platform appears to boast the most significant payload capacity of the bunch — something that should matter in a competition for refuelers.
The decision may ultimately come down to answering a simple question: is the Navy looking for the most capable refueler they can fly or would they prefer reduced payload capacity in favor of a more versatile platform?
Only time will tell.
You can watch the video below:
Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin