The Navy is trying to build a next-generation super-drone that it can launch from an aircraft carrier and refuel in mid-air.
In the first quarter of 2015, the US Navy will pick a winner from among the four defence contractors asked to design a version of the aircraft.
According to a rundown of Navy programs, four to eight units of the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) will be brought into participating carrier air wings, “enabling a single carrier to conduct ’24/7′ [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], targeting, strike, and bomb damage assessment operations.”
Unmanned aircraft come with significant advantages over their piloted relatives. Drones don’t suffer from pilot fatigue, making fuel their only flight limitation. And Northrop Grumman is looking to solve that with in-flight refueling capabilities for its candidate, the X-47B.
The contractor ran successful trials of the X-47B last August and September, using a manned Learjet 25B on autopilot as a stand-in which was fuelled in flight by a Boeing 707. The trial was a proof of concept, but mid-air refueling tests involving an actual X-47B may come as early as next year. Two units of the prototype — called Salty Dog 501 and Salty Dog 502 — are already in use in another Navy program, and one of them is equipped with a mid-air refueling capability.
Separately, DARPA, the Pentagon’s technological research arm, has even tested flights betweentwo drones flying close enough to allow for refueling.
UCLASS will likely be able to leave its carrier for more time, and cover greater distances than manned alternatives. In a 2008 report that strongly recommends carrier-based drone development, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments states that “with aerial refueling, a [combat drone] would be able to stay airborne for 50 to 100 hours — five to ten times longer than a manned aircraft.”
Drones might also make safer landings. Landing a plane on an aircraft carrier is routinized but still incredibly dangerous, with Sam LaGronenoting in Popular Sciencethat “combat losses are tiny compared to the number lost in just attempting to take off and land on a carrier.”
It might be safer to entrust more and more of naval aviation to robots, especially for missions that are less reliant on the human element. The X-47B achieved its first carrier landing last year, and its first takeoff and landing in “rapid succession” in August.
The goal is to make the X-47B truly unmanned, with commands given through simple mouse clicks rather than the joystick used to control much smaller, land-based drones.
Drones also call for way fewer manhours of training, which allows the Navy to conserve its resources. According to War on the Rocks, “fewer flying hours equates to direct savings in fuel and maintenance costs, but also fewer aircraft needed for training, reducing procurement costs.”
Despite these advantages, the UCLASS probably won’t serve an active combat role. Some Pentagon and Navy officials want the drone limited to an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) function as opposed to using it for strikes in hostile airspace.
“The challenges of developing a trio of high dollar warplanes at once [the UCLASS, the F-35, and the F/A-XX] and the latent cultural resistance to unmanned strike aircraft in naval aviation circles made an ISR centric UCLASS” easier to swallow for the Navy, according to sources who spoke with the US Naval Institute.
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