The Navy’s Drone Fighter Almost Ready for Testing

An unmanned aerial vehicle is tested for takeoff and landing from an aircraft carrier.

An X-47B drone aircraft lands at Edwards Air Force Base, California, June 14, 2012
An X-47B drone aircraft lands at Edwards Air Force Base, California, June 14, 2012 (Northrop Grumman)

After years of design work, virtual simulations and basic field testing, DefenseNews reports that Northrop Grumman’s X-47B is almost set for scheduled active at sea trials this coming year.

The plane, actually an unmanned drone, is the Navy’s attempt to design a combat platform suitable for takeoff and landing operations aboard an aircraft carrier and is likely just the first of what will end up being the next generation of air combat capabilities for the United States Navy.

Sea trials will take place aboard the Nimitz class supercarrier Harry S. Truman sometime next year and will test a variety of mechanisms and features common to carrier-based jet fighters, including the ability to use launching catapults and arrestor wires. Most of these features, unseen in prior unmanned aircraft designs, have represented an added layer of complexity for the designers of the X-47B, as the intricacies and nuanced interactions of the plane with shipboard systems must be performed with a much higher degree of precision and coordination than is typically seen in land based aerial operations.

That being said, while it may seem that unmanned platforms are only just catching up to the performance capabilities assumed to be normal for manned planes, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Though the newest generation of American jet fighters, from the F-22 Raptor to the F-35 Lightning II, has seen the incorporation of advanced design characteristics in the realms of stealth and integrated combat systems, it is the X-47B prototype that probably represents the greatest potential revolution in the thinking of military strategists and naval aviators in this century.

Northrop Grumman’s design focus on carrier operations for the X-47B, a factor that has given rise to the need for extensive testing not done before, differentiates its purpose from that of existing drone platforms.

Present combat drones, many of which are much larger than carrier launched aircraft, have onboard capabilities that cater to mission profiles from long-term surveillance and reconnaissance to surgical attack. The Navy’s newest project is less likely to be deployed on long range and time consuming missions away from the support of other carrier-based forces. This fact diminishes the need for the massive fuel tanks and electronic warfare suites common on the X-47B’s larger brethren and, when combined with a lack of space for a pilot and life support systems, makes for a plane that is relatively small, has a large amount of internal storage available for weapons and could be both stored and deployed in numbers from the Navy’s ships.

But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the X-47B’s successors may simply be its unmanned nature. Along with mitigating the traditional limitations faced by all naval aviation organizations in having to cater to the particular supply and needs of pilots, unmanned aerial vehicles like this may act to remove elements of risk associated with human involvement in combat.

Whether used in an attacking role, as an interdictor for battle groups or as a hostile airspace penetrator, the X-47B and its successors could allow the United States military to engage in operations that would otherwise represent too much of a danger. The plane will not be bothered by the limits of human endurance in high speed maneuvers and can be replaced far more easily than a regular combat fighter, primarily because the skill and experience of the remotely located pilot isn’t lost with the plane in the event of a crash.

If testing of these systems continues to be successful, their impact on policy and strategic planning efforts will be significant. The risk in allowing contemporary defense capabilities to be superseded by potentially ignoring technological advances is simply too high.