by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On April 15 over the Chesapeake Bay, a U.S. Navy drone linked up with an aerial tanker. It’s the first time a drone has ever done that — and it’s a pretty big deal.
The historic milestone is the Navy’s latest step toward total unmanned aviation — a move that could eventually spell the end of naval aviators in the cockpits of their fighters.
During the test flight, the pilotless Northrop Grumman X-47B aircraft connected with an Omega Aerial Refueling Services K-707 tanker. The unmanned drone did not receive any fuel during the experimental flight.
Since 2001, Omega has provided private tanker services during various Navy tests and training exercises, according to the company’s Website. The four-engined K-707 looks like U.S. Air Force’s KC-135s, but uses the probe-and-drogue refueling system the Navy favors.
“The X-47B successfully engages the refueling drogue,” stated the caption of an official Navy photograph posted to the Naval Air Systems Command Facebook page. “Next up: first-ever unmanned aerial refueling. Stay tuned!”
Since 2007, the Navy has experimented with the X-47B as a drone that can launch from aircraft carriers … and land on them. Eventually, the Navy wants drones to replace manned carrier aircraft.
That hasn’t happened — yet. But the Navy is working to make their plans a reality. On July 10, 2013, the X-47B landed on the carrier USS George H.W. Bush, the first time a drone accomplished the feat.
It’s a difficult enough job for human pilots. Accidents are frequent. Robots that can perform complex maneuvers such as aerial refueling are an even bigger achievement.
“Unmanned systems, particularly autonomous ones, have to be the new normal in ever-increasing areas,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said at the Sea-Air-Space 2015 Exposition, the same day as the refueling test.
The drone carried out the exercise autonomously, meaning without a human operator controlling it. In the future, this could mean drones that stay airborne almost indefinitely — filling up their tanks whenever needed.
Human pilots — who must eat and sleep — severely limit how long planes can stay in the air.
The troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter “almost certainly will be the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly,” Mabus declared.
To reinforce his position, Mabus created a new undersecretary post specifically for drones. The day after the X-47B showed off its new skills, the Navy held a conference to discuss ideas about the pilotless future with various companies.
According to briefing slides, the aviation industry needs to work on air-to-air refueling, advanced navigation systems, solar power and new lightweight materials. The Navy also wants GPS gear that resists jamming and hacking, better sensors and fancier communications relays.
While the Navy might continue tinkering with the X-47B, the pilotless jet was never intended for actual combat. The program’s official name—Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration—and the so-called “X-plane” designation both highlight its experimental nature.
Eventually, the Navy wants to develop a new jet dubbed the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System—a.k.a. UCLASS. But the transition is slow and problematic despite enthusiastic support from Mabus.
In August 2013, the Navy announced that it had awarded contracts to Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to develop possible designs for the new UCLASS aircraft. Northrop Grumman proposed a new C-model X-47.
General Atomics — maker of the famed Predator and Reaper drones — developed a sea-going version of the company’s Avenger. The Lockheed Sea Ghost takes some cues from the firm’s top-secret RQ-170 “Wraith,” while Boeing derived its offering from the pilotless X-45 concept plane.
But even with these designs already in the works, the biggest issue by far is disagreements over just what the UCLASS is actually supposed to do.
Lawmakers worried that the Navy focused on making the drone an aerial spy with only a limited ability to blow things up—a kind of glorified Reaper.
“We believe the current path could limit the capability growth of the system in the future,” Reps. Randy Forbes of Virginia and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina wrote in a letter to Mabus.
The two sent the letter a month after the Pentagon handed out the contracts. The legislators wanted Mabus to make sure the drones could kill.
The Navy revised the UCLASS requirements. In April 2014, the sailing branch sent a classified set of design details to companies working on the prototypes.
According to the Navy’s latest budget request, the new and more complex UCLASS should do everything from “counter-terrorism operations”—likely akin to what Predators and Reapers do now—to “high-end denied operations”—missions over hostile territory full of surface-to-air missiles, enemy fighters and other hazards.
But not every lawmaker believes that the Navy’s new drone will be deadly. In March, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to newly appointed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reiterating fears about the Navy’s upcoming drone fleet.
“I am concerned that the current requirements proposed for the UCLASS program put a disproportionate emphasis on … ISR support,” McCain wrote, using the Pentagon acronym for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “I would encourage you to ensure that the Navy’s first unmanned combat aircraft is capable of … conducting strike missions.”
On top of that, “under current plans, starting this April, there will be no unmanned air vehicles operating from carrier decks for several years,” McCain warned. He encouraged Carter to keep the X-47Bs flying in the meantime.
Whatever the UCLASS does in the end, the Navy insists the pilotless planes will incorporate both new technology and the lessons learned from the X-47B. The Navy hopes to have the drones serving aboard carriers sometime between 2022 and 2032.