Lockheed's MQ-25 Tanker Drone Looks Impressive, But It's Still Just A Paper Plane


Lockheed has unveiled its MQ-25 Stingray carrier-based unmanned aerial tanker concept, and it's impressive—but it's still just a concept. No prototype exists of the aircraft, and that could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how the Navy actually evaluates the three proposed designs being offered before awarding a contract for four prototype aircraft late this Summer.
Our friend James Drew over at Aviation Week got the scoop, and has conveyed both concept art and some interesting details about the Skunk Works' Stingray design. Like Boeing's and General Atomics' MQ-25 contenders, but to a lesser degree, Lockheed's MQ-25 appears to be influenced by the company's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) concept that came before it.
That stealthy aircraft was dubbed the Sea Ghost and was a substantial outgrowth of the company's proven RQ-170 Sentinel design, upscaled and refined for naval operations and the penetrating strike and reconnaissance mission. It's possible, if not outright probable that a similar aircraft exists but in a non-navalized form in the classified world.
The Sea Ghost design was dropped after the Navy dumbed-down its carrier-based drone requirement to a tanker with limited surveillance capability—and one that didn't have to penetrate into contested territory at all. As such, stealth requirements were jettisoned.
The company seems to have decided that a flying wing design with a dorsal inlet was still the best answer for the carrier-borne tanker requirement. This makes plenty of sense as a flying wing can hold and efficiently transport a lot of gas.
Drew writes that Skunk Works general manager Rob Weiss says that his team examined many different design concepts for the MQ-25 mission, but kept coming back to the flying-wing design for a number of reasons:
"Weiss says a flying-wing concept was always in the mix, and it kept coming out on top. A flying-wing aircraft has the benefit of being aerodynamically efficient and can carry more fuel for its size. Other benefits include a lower total parts count and reduced spot factor on the carrier deck with the wingtips folded up. Despite the flying-wing design being shorter in length, the landing gear and tail hook have enough separation to safely catch the arresting gear, rather than trip over it."
Reducing the number of parts for an aircraft design is something the Skunk Works has been working tirelessly on for nearly two decades. The introduction of large-span composite structures and new kiln systems and manufacturing techniques has enhanced the feasibility of simplifying otherwise complex airframe designs dramatically. Experiments, both public (X-55), and at the time private (X-44P-175), have resulted in a mastery of these processes and the use of it in production aircraft like the RQ-170.