May 14, 2013
Credit: Northrop Grumman
The U.S. Navy made aviation history on Tuesday by launching an unmanned jet off an aircraft carrier for the first time, taking an important step toward expanded use of drones by the American military with an eye on possible rivals like China and Iran.
The bat-winged X-47B stealth drone roared off the USS George H.W. Bush near the coast of Virginia and flew a series of pre-programmed maneuvers around the ship before veering away toward a Naval air station in Maryland where it was scheduled to land.
“This is really a red-letter day. May 14 we all saw history happen” said Rear Admiral Ted Branch, the Atlantic naval air commander. “It’s a marker ... between naval aviation as we’ve known it and the future of naval aviation with the launch of the X-47B.”
Because of its stealth potential and a range nearly twice that of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the X-47B and its successors are seen as a potential answer to the threat posed by medium-range anti-ship missiles developed by China and Iran, defense analysts said.
The missiles and other so-called anti-access, area-denial weapons would force U.S. aircraft carriers to operate far enough from shore that piloted aircraft would have to undergo refueling to carry out their missions, leaving them vulnerable to attack.
But with a range of 2,000 nautical miles, an unmanned jet like the X-47B could give the Navy both a long-range strike and reconnaissance capability.
“That makes it strategically very important,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He described the drone as “essentially a really long-range stealth system.”
“As we rebalance to the Pacific, the Navy is going to increasingly need range,” said Brien Alkire, a senior researcher at RAND’s Project Air Force. “That’s something an unmanned system can bring them that they don’t really have right now and give them the ability to operate from a good standoff range.
The X-47B, one of only two demonstrator models made by Northrop Grumman Corp, carries the equivalent of two precision-guided bombs. It was catapulted from the aircraft carrier on Tuesday using the same sling-shot system that sends manned aircraft aloft.