X-47B belongs in the sky, not a museum

Defense.gov

Flight deck crewmen prepare to move a Navy X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator aircraft from an elevator aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) in Norfolk, Va., on May 6, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • With a rising chorus of detractors, the aircraft carrier needs its airwing to evolve in a manner that sustains its relevance

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  • The marginal costs today of additional testing, even beyond 2014, might end up saving large sums in the future

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  • Don’t cut the UCAS program short too soon, Navy

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When both Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert attended the first successful carrier landing of the service’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) in July, it was a clear signal of the Navy’s commitment to the future of unmanned carrier aviation. Getting unmanned capability to the fleet has been one of Secretary Mabus’ highest priorities during his five-year tenure, and the landing that day was a testament to his leadership and focus.

Unlike the drones flown by the other services, the Navy’s UCAS program, headlined by two X-47B models, is autonomous and pilots itself (based on a pre-loaded flight plan). This is itself a significant achievement that cuts out the need for an operator on the back end.

The X-47B features a broad array of capabilities, many of which represent significant advances over other unmanned systems. The X-47B has a range of more than 2,100 nautical miles—three times greater than the Predator. One of the two demonstrators has the potential to autonomously refuel midair. This is a capability the military has long sought to allow future drones to stay airborne over targets for even longer periods of time and to allow shorter range (but higher stealth) drones to achieve useful mission ranges in hotly contested environments. And while the X-47B is not stealthy, it was designed with a low-observable profile that could serve as a foundation for future stealthy Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs). Like many others today, the X-47B is capable of carrying weapons. Its twin internal weapons bays can pack a bigger payload than the MQ-9 Reaper, for example.

These capabilities are so impressive that as early as 2007, Thomas Ehrhard and Robert Work, writing for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argued that “If the X-47B was deployed today, it would already be one of the most capable carrier aircraft ever.”

This makes it all the more surprising that the Navy, following the triumph of the X-47B’s at-sea testing, has been ambiguous at best about the future of its most futuristic program. In the aftermath of the carrier landing, the service said that the UCAS-D models would be relegated to Navy museums. Since then, Navy leaders have backtracked a bit and said that the X-47B models would undergo further testing, at least through fiscal year 2014.

The uncertainty regarding the future of the UCAS program largely stems from its origin as a technology demonstration to pave the way for the Navy’s much larger Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS) program. The Navy is currently looking at UCLASS models under development by General Atomics, Boeing, Northrup Grumman and Lockheed Martin. These companies will have access to many of the sophisticated systems developed over the course of the UCAS-D program. The Navy hopes to apply lessons learned from the UCAS-D experience to help the development of its long-term unmanned strike and surveillance solution.

In the meantime, a heated debate is brewing within Navy circles regarding UCLASS requirements. As Virginia Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA), HASC Seapower and Projection Forces Chairman, and a strong supporter of the UCLASS program has explained, the Navy’s UCLASS program faces important tradeoffs between the attributes of stealth and range and the missions of strike and surveillance. What this means is that any future UCLASS model will need to strike a delicate balance among these key capabilities. And the answers are by no means obvious. Some favor greatly prioritizing the surveillance mission and range attribute in a way that points toward repurposing a more conventional drone type, such as the Predator. This approach has the added attraction being a smaller “bite of the elephant,” as true unmanned strike in a contested environment is more of a technological challenge than airborne surveillance.

The smaller bite translates to a smaller cost. This approach, however, also translates to a smaller advance in carrier striking power than if UCLASS favored strike and stealth. And with a rising chorus of detractors, the aircraft carrier needs its airwing to evolve in a manner that sustains its relevance.

The UCAS-D represents a solid opportunity to further test the bounds between these tradeoffs now as the Navy weighs evolving UCLASS requirements. After all, with its relative low observability and comparatively large payload capacity, the Navy could continue experimenting with the technology and see which kinds of configurations provide the greatest military benefit. At a minimum, the Navy should concentrate heavily on inflight refueling in order to ensure that capability makes its way into future unmanned vehicles. 

Consequently, it is a good sign that the Navy seems to be having second thoughts on relegating the demonstrators to the museum. Still, with the future of the X-47B in doubt past 2014 (and much sooner if sequestration sticks), the Navy should not be too quick to foreclose options. The marginal costs today of additional testing, even beyond 2014, might end up saving large sums in the future.

Unmanned aviation is poised to play a crucial role in the next chapter of the Navy’s history. The future is here now. While the UCAS-D has proved that unmanned, autonomous carrier-based aviation is possible, its mission is far from complete. Don’t cut the UCAS program short too soon, Navy. 

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow for national security at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Bryan McGrath is a defense consultant and former Naval officer.

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