ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH - A drone the size of a fighter jet took off from the deck of an American aircraft carrier for the first time Tuesday in a test flight that could eventually open the way for the U.S. to launch unmanned aircraft from just about any place in the world.
The X-47B is the first drone designed to take off and land on a carrier, meaning the U.S. military would not need permission from other countries to use their bases.
"As our access to overseas ports, forward operating locations and airspace is diminished around the world, the value of the aircraft carrier and the air wing becomes more and more important," Rear Adm. Ted Branch, commander of Naval Air Forces Atlantic, said after the flight off the Virginia coast. "So today is history."
The move to expand the capabilities of the nation's drones comes amid growing criticism of America's use of Predators and Reapers to gather intelligence and carry out lethal missile attacks against terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Critics in the U.S. and abroad have charged that drone strikes cause widespread civilian deaths and are conducted with inadequate oversight.
Still, defense analysts say drones are the future of warfare.
The new Joint Strike Fighter jet "might be the last manned fighter the U.S. ever builds. They're so expensive, they're so complex, and you put a human at risk every time it takes off from a carrier," said James Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"This is the next generation of military technology - the unmanned vehicles, the unmanned submersibles, the unmanned aircraft. This will be the future of warfare, and it will be a warfare that is a little less risky for humans but maybe a little more effective when it comes to delivering weapons and effect."
While the X-47B isn't intended for operational use, it will help Navy officials develop future carrier-based drones. Those drones could begin operating by 2020, according to Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the Navy's program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons.
The X-47B is far bigger than the Predator, has three times the range and can be programmed to carry out missions with no human intervention, the Navy said.
While the X-47B isn't a stealth aircraft, it was designed with the low profile of one. That will help in the development of future stealth drones, which would be valuable as the military changes its focus from the Middle East to the Pacific, where a number of countries' air defenses are a lot stronger than Afghanistan's.
"Unmanned systems would be the likely choice in a theater or an environment that was highly defended or dangerous where we wouldn't want to send manned aircraft," Branch said.
During Tuesday's flight, the X-47B used a steam catapult to launch, just as traditional Navy warplanes do. The unarmed aircraft then made two low approaches toward the aircraft carrier as it if was going to land, before being waved off and returning to a higher altitude. The jet then landed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland about an hour later.
The next critical test for the tailless plane will come this summer, when it attempts to land on a moving aircraft carrier, one of the most difficult tasks for Navy pilots.
Earlier this month, the X-47B successfully landed at the air station using a tailhook to catch a cable and bring it to a quick stop, just as planes setting down on carriers have to do.
The X-47B has a wingspan of about 62 feet and weighs 14,000 pounds, versus nearly 49 feet and about 1,100 pounds for the Predator.
While Predators are typically piloted via remote control by someone in the U.S., the X-47B relies only on computer programs to tell it where to fly unless a human operator needs to step in. Eventually, one person may be able to control multiple unmanned aircraft at once, Branch said.
The group Human Rights Watch said it is troubled by what it described as a trend toward the development of fully autonomous weapons that can choose and fire upon targets with no human intervention.
"We're saying you must have meaningful human control over key battlefield decisions of who lives and who dies. That should not be left up to the weapons system itself," said Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch.
Developed by Northrop Grumman under a 2007 contract at a cost of $1.4 billion, the X-47B is capable of carrying weapons and is designed to be the forerunner for a drone program that will provide around-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and targeting, according to the Navy, which has been giving updates on the project over the past few years.
"It was exciting for us and all the people on the ship," said Carl Johnson, who is with Northrop Grumman. Research and development engineers did the technical heavy lifting for the Unmanned Combat Air System, or UCAS, at the Northrop Grumman facility in Rancho Bernardo.
UCAS was unveiled with great fanfare at the defense contractor's Palmdale facility in 2008. Since then, design teams worked on it's maiden flight to the catapult takeoff Tuesday.
"That was history in the making," said Johnson. "The next step is to make an arrested landing on an aircraft carrier at sea and that will happen this summer."
The company's aerospace division is planning another historic flight in the near future of its Triton system, an unmanned aerial vehicle designed to do for the Navy over the ocean what the Global Hawk has done for troops over Iraq and Afghanistan. Research is ongoing for the autonomous UCAS to one day enable it to do refueling in mid-air.
"The workforce is really specialized in Rancho Bernardo which really doesn't exist anywhere else," Johnson said.
The X-47B can reach an altitude of more than 40,000 feet and has a range of more than 2,100 nautical miles, versus 675 for the Predator. The Navy plans to show the drone can be refueled in flight, which would give it even greater range.
Watch the launch below:
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