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.