The case for sea-based drones

By David Axe
May 14, 2013

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator is towed into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), May 13, 2013. CREDIT: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter

If all goes according to plan, sometime on Tuesday the military balance of power in the Pacific Ocean could tilt to America’s advantage. The U.S. Navy’s main warships, whose firepower now cannot match the range of Chinese missiles, could gain a new weapon that more than levels the playing field.

It all boils down to a 62-foot-wide, hook-nosed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle built by Northrop Grumman. This new drone is set to launch off the 1,092-foot-long flight deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, known in Navy parlance as CVN-77 and until Tuesday morning docked at the sprawling naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.

The test launch of Northrop’s X-47B from one of the carrier’s steam-driven catapults, part of a roughly $1 billion development effort, could mark the first successful deployment of a modern, jet-powered drone from a ship – and is likely to bring the burgeoning era of military robots to the sea.

If it works, the X-47B and follow-on drones, which are devised to be armed with bombs and missiles, could nearly quadruple the striking range of the United States’ 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers – reversing a recent decline in the giant ships’ ability to do battle against a determined, high-tech foe.

Namely, China.

Final Countdown          

“Shortly after CVN-77 gets underway,” Rear Admiral Mat Winter, the head of Navy drone development, wrote in a blog post on Monday, “our dedicated Navy and Northrop Grumman test team will launch the X-47B from the flight deck. Controlled by a mission operator aboard the ship, the X-47B will execute several carrier approaches, demonstrating its ability to operate seamlessly within the carrier environment.”

The drone is programmed to land at the naval air station in Patuxent River, Maryland. For the past two years, the Navy has been conducting ground tests there on a pair of X-47Bs – including takeoffs and landings and hands-off, autonomous flights controlled by automatic software.

The carrier launch is the first step in what are expected to be intensive at-sea tests. The Navy has designed these to provide the data it needs to build front-line versions of the X-47B or similar drones from competing aerospace manufacturers Boeing, Lockheed Martin or General Atomics. The Pentagon wants to be flying real-world robotic missions off carriers with live weapons as early as 2019.

By then the X-47B will be nearly 20 years old. Originally developed for use by the Navy and Air Force, the original X-47A model – smaller and less powerful than today’s seven-ton X-47B – was cancelled in 2006 when the Air Force lost interest. The Navy then asked Northrop to enlarge the diamond-shaped drone for a separate development program beginning in 2007. But the sailing branch’s support for the program wavered.

This changed after the so-called Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration program gained a major ally later that year. Bob Work, a retired Marine Corps artillery officer who had become a respected military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington, co-wrote, with Thomas Ehrhard, an influential public study extolling the potential virtues of the drone, or UCAS, in combat.

The two men emphasized the UAV’s long range compared to the current generation of manned, carrier-launched warplanes. They also detailed the X-47B’s ability to avoid detection by enemy radars – largely due to its compact shape.

Noting that manned Hornet fighter-bombers, the Navy’s main carrier-launched fighter, must refuel after 450 miles, Work and Ehrhard pointed out that an X-47B or similar drone should be able to fly at least 1,500 miles on internal fuel, extending to 3,000 miles with in-air refueling, This is far more than even a refueled Hornet – owing to the limitations of the manned plane’s pilot.

Strategic Value

The ramifications of this longer striking range could be far-reaching, Work and Ehrhard contended. China possesses a new class of ballistic missile capable of striking ships at an estimated range of 1,000 miles – farther than the Hornet can fly. Without a long-range drone, the analysts warned, “U.S. carrier strike forces will be faced with a major land-based threat that outranges them.”

Time might also be a factor. As they explained, “A carrier at Pearl Harbor ordered to respond to a developing crisis in the Taiwan Strait could immediately set sail and launch a flight of UCASs.” The drones could reach Chinese airspace in 10 hours and remain there for another five hours, surviving and fighting “even in the face of advanced Chinese air defense systems” – thanks to their stealth qualities.

“The strategic value of that sort of responsiveness and reach would be incalculable,” Work and Ehrhard concluded.

Not only did the Navy ultimately agree and boost support for the X-47B, in 2009 Work joined the sailing branch as its new undersecretary. He was able to continue arguing for the new drone’s importance from inside the Pentagon.

Northrop steadily added more autonomy to the X-47B until it was nearly entirely robotic. “There is man in the loop,” explained Carl Johnson, a Northrop vice president, in a telephone interview. He was referring to operators on land or aboard a launching carrier who he said can “monitor and override autonomous systems” within the drone. Takeoff, landing and most of the X-47B’s flight are handled by software.

Work left the Navy in April to head the Center for a New American Security, a policy organization in Washington. He told Reuters he will be eagerly monitoring the X-47B’s takeoff on Tuesday. In particular, he will be looking to see whether the drone can maneuver alongside the other aircraft that routinely surround a carrier.

Work says he expects a smooth takeoff – and also continued strong Navy support for the drone program, particularly in light of improving air defenses in China and other rival nations. Since Work co-wrote his X-47B report, both Russia and China have unveiled new high-tech warplanes and missiles.

“Everybody is surprised at the pace and broad range of capabilities adversaries all over the world are pursuing,” Work said. “The case for unmanned systems coming off the carrier has accelerated.”

Assuming today’s launch is a success, it could be only a few years before UAVs like the X-47B routinely fly from the Navy’s carriers, giving the United States aerial advantage over the Pacific.


PHOTO (Insert): Northrop Grumman personnel conduct pre-operational tests on an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. CREDIT: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin J. Steinberg/Released


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