Lockheed Martin's unmanned MQ-25 tanker designed with the Navy's needs in mind

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During a media briefing at Sea-Air-Space 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works’ leaders described the company’s MQ-25 unmanned tanker concept as a “tremendous, high performing tanker/airplane” for the Navy.

The “purpose-built” tanker’s configuration has a “clean sheet design,” the company says. According to Rob Weiss, vice president and general manager for Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, the aircraft’s configuration is a result of the Skunk Works’ team listening to its customer.

“As the customer’s requirements have evolved, since the UCLASS [Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike] program was canceled, our team has done an exceptional job of listening to what the Navy has asked for, and ultimately driving to a solution that is right in line with what their requirements are,” says Weiss, who is retiring at the end of the year.  

Lockheed Martin is going up against Boeing and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems for the tanker work, with a contract expected as soon as this summer. Northrop Grumman, one of the original competitors for UCLASS, has since dropped out.

General Atomics says it has also proposed a clean-sheet design, and in February announced its corporate team for the work, which would include Boeing Autonomous Systems, engine maker Pratt & Whitney and communications systems provider L3 Technologies.

Boeing unveiled its entry for the contest in December, basing it on its original UCLASS design. Defense News recently reported that the company is so bullish on its efforts that it may be building a second prototype aircraft.

The program would receive $684 million under the fiscal 2019 Department of Defense budget request, a significant boost from the fiscal 2018 amount of $222 million.

Changing focus

The Skunk Works team got to the current configuration of the MQ-25 by conducting several trade studies, Weiss says. They began with looking at the UCLASS configuration, and tried to “drive a solution based on that UCLASS configuration,” Weiss notes.  

With all of the work and engineering that was put into the UCLASS configuration over the years preceding its cancellation, the initial concept for the MQ-25 was to leverage all of that engineering and see what could be done to transform a strike-reconnaissance aircraft into a tanker aircraft.

Ultimately, though, the Skunk Works team was not satisfied with the results.

“It was a compromise, as, frankly, most derivatives end up being,” Weiss says. Weiss explains that this was the case because the airplane was designed to do one thing, but now they were trying to “maneuver that to perform another mission.” 

Following this realization, the Skunk Works team considered “wing-body-tail configurations.” Weiss says that the airplanes that they had at the time were capable of performing the mission, but they once again found that it was not as high performing an airplane as they would’ve liked.

As they continued their trade studies, the Skunk Works team went back to the flying wing design, but this time, they went into it with a completely clean sheet approach, as they no longer were trying to derive the UCLASS configuration to be a tanker.

This has led to the current version of the MQ-25, which is equipped with a number of capabilities; chief among them, its carrier suitability.

“The ability to be a carrier-suitable airplane is absolutely key to the U.S. Navy,” Weiss says.

Being carrier suitable requires the aircraft to not only be able to take off from the carrier, but it also has to be able to land on the carrier as well.

For Weiss and Jeff Babione, who will succeed Weiss in the role of vice president and general manager once Weiss retires, one of the MQ-25’s most impressive characteristics surrounds its landing ability, as the aircraft’s eyes are always looking at the “yellow shirt” on the carrier that is guiding the aircraft in, which allows whoever is operating the MQ-25 to see what the aircraft is seeing as it lands on a carrier.

Weiss says the yellow shirts want pilots of manned aircraft looking at them so they don’t miss any of the precise signals they are being given, and the same idea applies to unmanned aircraft.

With this in mind, the MQ-25 is configured so its eyes are looking at the yellow shirt, and the aircraft has a series of light signals that let the taxi director know that the actual operator of the aircraft — located on the carrier — is seeing every signal the yellow shirt is giving them.

This capability, along with a host of others such as the MQ-25’s ability to seamlessly integrate with existing systems, and its exceptional ISR overwatch endurance, were all designed with the Navy’s needs in mind, according to Weiss.

“Everything that we have done on developing the MQ-25 configuration has been focused on providing a low risk solution for the Navy,” Weiss says.

Video footage of the Lockheed MQ-25 concept can be seen below: