The U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers flight decks are some of the most chaotic and deadly real estate in the world. Teeming with scores of high-performance aircraft, wheeled vehicles and up to a thousand sailors generating up to several hundred sorties per day, flight decks “are fraught with danger,” the Naval Safety Center warned in a 2003 publication. “You can get blown down by prop wash, blown over-board by jet exhaust, run over by taxiing aircraft or sucked up and spit out by a turning engine.”
Soon the Navy may have a new danger to add to the list. The sailing branch plans to add robotic jet-powered warplanes to the carrier-deck mix starting next year. The Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator program, or UCAS-D, is scheduled to launch a seven-ton Northrop Grumman X-47B drone from the carrier USS Eisenhower sometime in 2013.
The approximately $1-billion UCAS-D effort should lay the groundwork for the follow-on Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike initiative, or UCLASS, which aims to add armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to all 11 of the Navy’s carriers no later than 2020. The UCLASS drones would boast greater range and endurance — and a lower unit cost — than existing manned fighters. Northrop, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics are all competing for the UCLASS contract.