The US Navy could select the winning bidder to develop a carrier-based, unmanned tanker called the MQ-25 Stingray by late summer, a top acquisition official says.

After releasing a request for proposals in October, three bidding teams must submit responses by early January. The service will spend the next eight months reviewing proposals and expects to make a final source selection by late summer, Rear Admiral Mark Darrah told reporters.

Last year, the navy awarded four risk reduction contracts to Boeing, General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems Inc, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. But Northrop withdrew from the competition shortly after the navy released the RFP, saying the company could not execute the programme based on the terms.

As the bidding progresses for the airframe, the Navy continues to develop two more elements of the programme.

Last week, the navy released a request for information for the Stingray’s carrier- and shore-based mission control station. The new interface would translate audio messages from the MQ-25’s human air vehicle operator into voice-over internet protocol to communicate with the shipboard air traffic control system (SATCC).

“People are always focused on the air system part of this,” Darrah says. “There’s three segments, there’s the ground segment, and then the carrier integration segment...we’ve been working on those other two parts of it for the last several years getting that all ready to go, so that when we get that award, we go as quickly as we can.”

The navy’s Stingray programme has seen several incarnations over its developmental lifetime, evolving from the stealthy strike and reconnaissance platform known as the Unmanned Carrier Launch Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) and into the Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System, which the navy designated MQ-25.

The service invested more than $839 million into UCLASS until fiscal year 2016, when the navy began risk reduction activities that would transition into the MQ-25 unmanned carrier aviation programme, according to budget documents.

The service budgeted $114 million in FY2016 as the programme transferred to UCA. The navy has $2.4 billion in funding planned from FY2017 through 2022 for system development and demonstration work.

The service has scheduled a design review for the air system portion in 2019 and is planning initial operational capability for the mid-2020s.