Wall Street Journal
May 14, 2013
Test Flight Set for Plane That Admirals Say Will Extend an Aircraft Carrier’s Range
The U.S. Navy will take a big step into the drone age Tuesday when it catapults a batwing prototype of an unmanned plane off the deck of an aircraft carrier for the first time.
The flight of the X-47B will mark what Navy officers and independent analysts see as a key moment in the transformation of naval air power that will better equip U.S. forces to counter the challenges of Iran and China.
Eventually, the Navy plans to have unmanned aircraft on each of its carriers. They will be used at first for surveillance but later will be armed and used in combat roles.
Officers said Tuesday’s test off the coast of Virginia, if successful, would represent a milestone in naval aviation, which began with Eugene Ely’s 1910 flight off the deck of the USS Birmingham.
“This is broadly about where the Navy is going with the integration of unmanned systems with our manned aircraft,” said Adm. David Buss, the commander of Naval Air Forces. “It is pretty exciting times for us.”
Drone programs across the military have escaped rounds of deep defense budget cuts as military commanders favor unmanned systems in a growing number of missions.
The Army and Air Force each already have large drone fleets, but defense analysts say there still is an argument to be made for naval drones. Naval aviation “is inherently more flexible than land-based aviation,” said Christopher Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank generally supportive of investments in the military.
Unmanned vehicles currently have fewer capabilities than manned aircraft in combat settings, and advances to close the gap are years away, said Mr. Harmer. But drones have proved superior in conducting surveillance owing to their ability to remain aloft for long periods.
Navy officers and outside analysts say the arrival of drone flight to aircraft carriers will extend a carrier group’s range because the X-47B can fly roughly double the distance of a manned F-35C fighter.
“It is a step in changing how naval war will be fought,” said Jim Lewis, a defense analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Navy already has Fire Scout helicopter drones, which have a far shorter flying range, though they are useful in antipiracy and related missions.
Mr. Lewis said ships in the future also may control unmanned submarines and surface ships as well as the helicopter and fixed-wing drones. And Navy officers said pilots flying above an aircraft carrier may one day control several unmanned drones.
But before the future arrives, the Navy’s prototype must successfully launch from a carrier
On Tuesday, sailors will taxi the X-47B, which was built by Northrop Grumman Corp., into the catapult on the left bow of the USS George H.W. Bush. “They will push the button and the X-47 will accelerate from zero to 140 mph and will go off the end of the ship,” said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the program executive officer for unmanned aviation.
The plane will turn, climb and then fly to the stern of the ship. The drone will approach as if to land at least twice but will be waved off each time and sent back to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. It will initially be controlled by a sailor on the carrier, then handed over to sailors at the air station.
The X-47B prototype program has cost $1.8 billion over eight years. The Navy is hoping to acquire its fleet of fixed-wing drones between 2017 and 2020 for between $38 million and $75 million each. Four major defense contractors—Northrop, Boeing Co., General Atomics and Lockheed Martin Corp. —are expected to bid.
Flying drones inside a foreign country or from a base abroad requires permission from host governments. But in international waters, naval drones will be able to operate with greater freedom, Mr. Harmer said.
Initially, the Navy plans to equip its drones with sensors that can intercept communications, take video and have infrared capability, extending the capabilities of current ships, Adm. Buss said. “In a Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea or the eastern Mediterranean, that kind of sensor package will be very, very powerful,” he said.
The Navy once was skeptical of drones, according to analysts. But the X-47B prototype represents a new generation. It is more difficult to spot on radar, uses jet propulsion and an automated control system that means the drone largely flies itself, rather than being directly controlled by a remote pilot.