Navy’s Drone Carrier Test Points to Robotic Warfare Future

Operating unmanned aerial vehicles from aircraft carriers could have many advantages for the United States.

Sailors move an X-47B demonstrator onto an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, May 14
Sailors move an X-47B demonstrator onto an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, May 14 (US Navy/Timothy Walter)

A milestone in the development of unmanned aerial technologies was passed recently when the United States Navy’s sea based drone strike platform, the experimental X-47B, was successfully launched from and recovered aboard an aircraft carrier.

Testing of the Navy’s prototype drone took place aboard the USS George H.W. Bush and mirrored earlier tests undertaken at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. As was the case in previous trials, this most recent undertaking examined the plane’s ability to take off and land using the assistive catapults and wires needed to fly from seaborne runways. Unlike earlier trials, however, this test was without simulated variables — the drone was actively tasked to consider and calculate the movement of a ship at sea.

The success of the test is significant for a number of reasons. Perhaps foremost among these is the way in which the Navy test — in essentially proving that launching drones from aircraft carrying ships is viable — highlighted America’s relatively near term ability to field the advancing capabilities of unmanned planes like the X-47B and those future variants likely to be designed around it.

Unlike the fleet of drones utilized by the United States in recent wars in both global surveillance and surgical strike roles, this new generation of drones exhibits characteristics of more traditional combat fighter platforms and will benefit from the greater power and mission flexibility afforded by an air frame built for combat.

Instead of propeller engines, a component choice made to keep the cost of past platforms like the infamous Predator down, the X-47B is designed around advanced jet engines that will allow it to operate at supersonic speeds. At the same time, though not designed specifically as a stealth fighter, the Navy’s new drones have a limited radar profile and the ability to carry up to 10,000 pounds of weapons entirely in the interior of the craft. Stealthy upgrades will thus be available for future variants that, alongside great speed and portable basing, could allow the United States to effectively operate unmanned assets in dangerous and heavily contested airspace.

Of course, the United States and its international partners already field such capabilities in the form of manned fighter bombers and submarine launched missile forces. But the unmanned nature of new drone platforms will quickly provide the American military and allied services with distinct advantages of efficiency and reaction.

Sea launched drones could operate in flight indefinitely, for example, with aerial refueling, a lack of pilot considerations and the ability of a task force to completely automate inflight processes leaving only issue of maintenance or rearmament as cause for grounding a plane. While the question of cost will likely prevent the massive use of unmanned strike and patrol craft in this manner ordinarily, such factors could allow drones to act as an extended protective patrol capacity in crisis situations.

Similarly, drones could be deployed over great distance as an advanced force, with air refueled UAVs able to reach far off warzones in fighting trim hours or days before ship dependent manned forces could arrive. The applications for potential crisis response situations, particularly those related to conflict in the Taiwan Straits or near the Korean Peninsula, are clear.

The Navy will undoubtedly also eventually benefit, given the influx of new hardware programs surely on the horizon, from the advantage of perception most traditionally associated with unmanned aerial vehicles — lack of risk to an aircrew. The ability to field nearly the full set of capabilities presently based from aircraft carriers with no need to endanger human lives may have deterrent value, leading to greater consideration of American ability to undertake effective low cost missions and, hopefully, a diminished need to use force.

Another reason that the success of the most recent Navy test is significant has to do with costs and financial feasibility. At just under $2 billion to date, the Navy’s UAV program can attribute a low cost of research and initial production to lessons learned from legacy development programs. And on top of initial research and development expenses, per unit costs are unlikely to exceed those of America’s next generation of manned combat planes, the Joint Strike Fighter, without significant redevelopment — again, largely owing to the adaptability of research undertaken for existing programs.

That being said, such positive markers for the future economy of drone production aside, it is perhaps more important to note that the X-47B has now ran the gauntlet and survived the true test of whether a new technology can be driven forward as financially viable — interoperability. After all, the minimal refit needed to launch and recover drones from existing ship systems or those currently in production negates the necessity of massive and expensive overhaul for the sake of one new combat platform, something that has often led to programs being scrapped. As a result, it is likely that the X-47B and its descendants may find themselves a central part of strategic plans for America’s maritime strike forces as the country moves towards both midcentury and the replacement of hundreds of Super Hornets, Growlers and other legacy aircraft.

Ultimately, an F-47 or any other variant on the prototype technologies embodied in the Navy’s test models will not be actively deployed for some years. Both versions of the X-47B will soon be retired to naval museums and the real work of building off of such test beds will begin. But the significant success of these drones, a watershed in the evolution of military technologies, more than hints at the nature of naval warfare in international affairs in the months, years and decades to come.

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