It was an event a century in the making. At 2:09 PM Pacific Standard Time on Feb. 4, the first full-scale prototype of Northrop Grumman’s X-47B carrier-capable drone fighter took off on from Edwards Air Force Base in California for its inaugural test flight. “Taking off under hazy skies, the X-47B climbed to an altitude of 5,000 feet, flew several racetrack-type patterns, and landed safely at 2:38 PM PST,” Northrop announced in a press release. “The flight provided test data to verify and validate system software for guidance and navigation, and the aerodynamic control of the tailless design.”
The X-47′s first flight took place almost exactly 100 years after history’s very first deck trap. On Jan. 18, 1911, American barnstorming pilot Eugene Ely landed his pusher biplane on a temporary deck fitted to the battleship USS Pennsylvania. The X-47′s first flight was perhaps not as revolutionary as Ely’s daring feat. But it did mark a potential huge leap in naval aviation development. With the X-47, Northrop “added just three words” to navair’s traditional repertoire,” said Navy Capt. Jamie Engdahl, program manager for the diamond-shaped, 62-foot-wingspan drone. Those three words are “unmanned, autonomous and L.O. relevant.” “L.O.” meaning “low-observable,” or stealthy.
The X-47 or a follow-on design could radically improve the strike capabilities of today’s short-range carrier air wings, while for the first time also allowing the Navy to conduct long-endurance armed surveillance, similar to what the Air Force does with its Predator and Reaper drones. The X-47 might also funnel technologies and ideas into a just-initiated effort to field a new heavy bomber for the Air Force.
The Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstration program should culminate in carrier tests and in-air refueling of the X-47B drone no later than 2013. UCAS-D will transition into a more lucrative program called Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance System, meant to field operational drones — either X-47s or a similar design — to carrier wings by 2018. Confidence in the two programs is so high that, weeks before the X-47′s first flight, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recommended adding funds to accelerate them.
It’s not hard to see why Gates is so eager to deploy armed drones aboard carriers. In 2007, the influential Washington, D.C. think tank Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments examined the benefits of a carrier wing that adds a squadron of drones to its usual complement of around 40 F/A-18 strike fighters.
“Using manned aircraft, current CVWs are optimized to strike targets at ranges between 200 to 450 nautical miles from their carriers,” CSBA’s report asserted. “Moreover, carrier aircraft lack persistence. … In contrast, a carrier-based UCAS could mount strikes out to 1,500 [nautical miles] from a carrier without refueling. Just as importantly, because its mission duration is not limited by human endurance, with aerial refueling a UCAS will be able to stay airborne for 50 to 100 hours — five to ten times longer than a manned aircraft.”
“The strategic value of that sort of responsiveness and reach would be incalculable,” CSBA concluded, without mentioning that the X-47 and similar drones would also be stealthier than an F-18.
An operational drone based on the X-47 is still seven years in the future, but it’s possible the X-47 has already inspired the basic planform of a traditionally-piloted warplane. In February, the Pentagon announced a new program to build a fleet of up to 100 new, manned, stealth bombers for the Air Force, with the first combat squadron equipped sometime in the early 2020s.
The so-called “Long-Range Strike” design will likely remain cloaked in secrecy, and might not be competed, the military said. Indeed, according to some reports, a Northrop-built prototype is already flying. Several years ago, during an earlier, aborted attempt to build a new bomber, Northrop’s own marketing department released artwork showing a large, manned strike plane with the same basic shape as the UCAS-D drone.
A hundred years after naval aviation’s birth, the future of long-range strike for the Navy – and maybe the Air Force — is diamond-shaped, robotic and called “X-47.”