For the first time in naval history, a unmanned stealth drone (the bat-wing X-47B) was launched from an aircraft carrier. As Reuters reports, the launch from the USS George H.W. Bush marks an important step toward expanded use of drones in “providing very long range stealth” capabilities. Seen as a potential answer to the threat of medium-range anti-ship missiles developed by China and Iran; with a range of 2000 nautical miles the X-47B is “strategically very important.” Because of its long range and the Navy’s need to have it take off and land, day and night, from an aircraft carrier, the X-47B has been designed to operate with far greater autonomy than the remotely piloted aircraft currently in use. That has raised concerns among some organizations worried about the heavy U.S. reliance on drones in warfare and the rising use of autonomous robots by the American military; but Rear Admiral Ted Branch sees it as a “red letter day… we all saw history happen.”
The drone in action…
The U.S. Navy made aviation history on Tuesday by launching an unmanned jet off an aircraft carrier for the first time, taking an important step toward expanded use of drones by the American military with an eye on possible rivals like China and Iran.
The bat-winged X-47B stealth drone roared off the USS George H.W. Bush near the coast of Virginia and flew a series of pre-programmed maneuvers around the ship before veering away toward a Naval air station in Maryland where it was scheduled to land.
Because of its stealth potential and a range nearly twice that of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the X-47B and its successors are seen as a potential answer to the threat posed by medium-range anti-ship missiles developed by China and Iran, defense analysts said.
The missiles and other so-called anti-access, area-denial weapons would force U.S. aircraft carriers to operate far enough from shore that piloted aircraft would have to undergo refueling to carry out their missions, leaving them vulnerable to attack.
But with a range of 2,000 nautical miles, an unmanned jet like the X-47B could give the Navy both a long-range strike and reconnaissance capability.
“That makes it strategically very important,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He described the drone as “essentially a really long-range stealth system.”
“As we rebalance to the Pacific, the Navy is going to increasingly need range,” said Brien Alkire, a senior researcher at RAND’s Project Air Force. “That’s something an unmanned system can bring them that they don’t really have right now and give them the ability to operate from a good standoff range.
Future variants of the drone could probably be designed for full-spectrum broadband stealth, which means it would be hard for radar to locate it, analysts said. That level of stealth would be one of the drone’s major defenses.
Because of its long range and the Navy’s need to have it take off and land, day and night, from an aircraft carrier, the X-47B has been designed to operate with far greater autonomy than the remotely piloted aircraft currently in use.
That has raised concerns among some organizations worried about the heavy U.S. reliance on drones in warfare and the rising use of autonomous robots by the American military.
Human Rights Watch, in a report launching its recent campaign against “killer robots,” cited the X-47B as one of several weapons that represent a transition toward development of fully autonomous arms that require little human intervention.