Stealthy Navy Drone to Achieve First Flight, Finally

Just a few days after Boeing showed off the taxi tests of its unmanned strike prototype, the Navy reveals it’s gearing up for the premier flight of its first ever, stealthy, carrier-launched drone.

While the Northrop Grumman-made X-47B was supposed to fly last year, numerous delays have kept the plane grounded. That’s finally about to change according to Defense News’ ace naval reporter Chris Cavas.

The first unmanned aircraft designed as a carrier-based strike jet is almost ready to take to the air for the first time, U.S. Navy officials have confirmed.

Northrop Grumman’s X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) drone has been performing taxi tests for several weeks at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., as engineers run the aircraft through a long series of pre-flight tests and checks.

Program officials had hoped for a flight by mid-December, but weather and other factors have delayed the event. Officials were reluctant to specify an exact date, but are hopeful the flight will take place before the end of the year.

Here’s the most interesting part of Cavas’ article:

Although numerous technical and command-and-control issues need to be addressed to bring the concept to maturity, war planners have routinely been using X-47s in war games as part of a carrier strike group. In some cases, they have even swapped out the manned air wing for an all-UCAS wing, with, reportedly, great success.

The success of the X-47B will no doubt pave the way for the sea service’s planned Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike drone. That aircraft, which will piggyback off the X-47B program, will be a fully operational combat plane capable of doing everything from air-to-ground strikes and ISR missions to air-to-air refueling.

The speed of the development and fielding of these planes will also likely play a factor in Pentagon planning for conflicts in the Pacific theater where China is developing advanced air defense networks and missiles aimed at keeping U.S. carriers far from the Chinese coast.

  • Sanem

    sounds like the Navy is working hard on an F-35C alternative. at this rate the X-47B might fly off a carrier before the F-35C does

  • Brian

    This is the F-35’s competition, not the budget.

  • Michael

    And maybe a little further in the future maybe the pilots will be situated in an environment that looks like a cockpit, and the external environment projected onto a spherical screen, much like the simulators they train in. That’d be cool.

  • Musson

    If it were really stealthy – you wouldn’t know it achieved it’s first flight!

  • Max

    It was inevitable; and long overdue. Sorry, “Top Guns”, it was cool and fun while it lasted, but it had to come to an end someday.

  • Jacob

    I don’t see why people are getting so worked up over the scary 1980’s-vintage S-300 SAM system when we have frickin’ STEALTH DRONES as the perfect SEAD platform. By the way, shouldn’t the Air Force be getting in on this program as well?

  • Alec

    The beginning of the end, like some advanced 3-D film straight out of Hollywood, when will these aircraft be armed with nuks and allowed to run amuck, certain things will always, I say again, always will require a human.

    • Elgatoso

      UAVs require a pilot .It is not a robotic drone, more like a super-RC

  • Sanem

    on UCAV carriers: STOVL UCAVs would work great with these, BAE made a design, basically a cruiser with two small ski jumps on the side and a big landing platform. long range strike capacity in a cruiser package

    on spherical UAV control stations, don’t bother, in time computers will be able to fly a craft with faster reflexes and greater tactical insight than any human can hope to cope. UAV controllers will be looking at radar screens and just advise on what tactics to use, rather than control the drones directly. like with a missile, you just tell it which route to take and what it has to hit, it does the rest

    on SEAD, I figure UCAVs are also an excellent SAM replacement: use F-22 tactics to hit targets before they even know they’re under attack, avoid dog fights, use numbers to create cross fires. having human initiative doesn’t help much when you have missiles comming at you from multiple angles, and you’re fighting an enemy that knows no fear, can outmanouver you, has unmatchable stealth and outnumbers you on account of lower per unit cost and very low operating costs

    on drones and nukes, current nuke missiles are already computer controlled, putting them on UCAVs would make absolutely no difference in terms of operational control. except you can have multiple platforms with excellent stealth compared to today’s delivery craft, giving a huge increase in potential mission succes. also see the recent movie Skyline, there’s actually a scene where multiple X-47Bs, escorted by jet-powered Reapers run the alien fighter screen to nuke the mother ship. you end up cheering on the little drones, like you would any manned aircraft, but you don’t care much if they go down

  • STemplar

    With a 1500 nmi un-refueled combat radius we don’t really need the carriers to be stealthy. It’s a nice idea but we really don’t need anymore over priced over budget building/development programs.

  • Justin H

    The Navy has to spend tons of money of warships and nuclear subs, so it comes as no suprise that they would be interested in more affordable stealthy attack aircraft.

  • Sev

    We should make massive numbers of very small, but highly explosive “Kamikaze” drones. They could swarm and overwhelm Air defence systems. Or dive bomb ground targets like radar domes. PLus if they’re small enough, they could avoid radar detection.

  • 2 bad it cant be deployed by SSGN via missile tube into flying wing mode, Thats radical but cool for carrier & share use alone or VSTOL from AEGIS or VTOL from Aegis class CG.

  • Maxtrue

    Recent tests have shown a laser can recharge the fuel cells powering a drone while in flight. As I posted way back, that an ultra high drone with sufficient lift capacity could drop launch a hypervelocity missile. That can probably achieve a faster speed downward than a rail shot any time soon. In short, a delivery system able to reach .4 kiloton impacts with the proper booster and mass…

    A Drone could loiter far longer than a B-52….and be a more stealthy target to shoot at…

    • krconnally

      If we are using a laser to recharge a drone, think what other technologies could be affected by the laser technology.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Afternoon Folks,

    The UAV is the future for the Navy. The program to watch is CVN 79 USS Ford. It appears that this carrier is primarily being built for the unmanned mission. The Navy is war gaming the UAV real heavy now, more so then the USAF, who still clings to the hero in the cockpit.

    Autonomous landings (traps) and take offs (launch) are already in all Naval fixed wing aircraft and most Air Force planes.

    All missions are on the table ISR, strategic attack, light attack, ground attack, air to air (yes dog fighting, a UAV can far exceed the 9g’s a human can take in turns) etc. Air to air refuleing has been so successful that all of the AF tankers will be able to do hands off refueling before the software can get to the receiving aircraft.

    An interesting article appeared in Popular Mechanics this Spring on the UCV strike and the only reason a flight of UAV’s had a manned F-35 was to make sure none of the UAV’s went Postal. The F-25 was there to shoot it down.

    The Navy is ready. Not mentioned in the article is that the Navy is now into the 2nd. generation of UAV helicopters. This stuff is finally for real. With the cost difference between manned and unmanned aircraft it would appear that by mid century or before there will be all unmanned Carrier Battle Groups.

    ALLONS,
    Byron Skinner

  • Bill

    In response to why the Air Force isn’t inerested in these, it is. They had a Joint UAV Combat Air Vehicle Program (J-UCAS) with Boeing’s X-45 and NGC’s X-47 going head to head. The Navy was more interested in the X-47 while the Air Force was more interested in the X-45. With the cost overruns on the F-35, the Air Force dropped out of the effort. Check out the Control of Multiple UAV Systems (CMUS) program from a few years ago.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Evening Folks,

    Hi Bill. Yes what’s your point? Your admission that the USAF dropped out of the effort seem to be a clear indication of lack of interest because ,it conflicts with the USAF’s efforts to retain a manned aircraft. The Navy with the X-47B and the Avenger among other efforts is clearly in front of the UAV program.

    Of course officially there is no conflict between the F-35 and UAV’s as it was in the 1940’s after WW II and jet were replacing propeller aircraft. There was very strong feelings from “older” pilots, WW II veterans who didn’t want to see there propellers replaced. It got very vocal and political till Korea. This appears always happens when a major transition happens.

    I’ll not be surprised that someone will comment on the C-130 and AT-6B, although they are both turbo props I believe.

    To ronaldo. You stated the limit that the US military considers to be the point where a pilots judgement could be impaired. The 9G’s that I mentioned was the absolute limit of which passed the pilot will die. I used that number because that is the point that the pilot of the F-22 that crashed in testing hit. I was doing a little CMA with the poster saying well______ went up to 6G’s and survived.

    ALLONS,
    Byron Skinner

  • Roland

    I think we need 1000 of these for defense specially for the on going crises in the Korean peninsula and China sea.