On Wednesday, the X-47B completed its first successful mid-air refuel. During the exercise, which occurred off the Atlantic coast near Maryland, the X-47B trailed, connected and refueled from an Omega KC-707 tanker. For the Unmanned Carrier Air Vehicle demonstrators (UCAS-D) program this was a huge milestone.
The program completed another milestone last summer when it successfully launched, recovered and completed taxi testing onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt with manned jets in the recovery pattern. This milestone proved its ability to integrate into the carrier launch and recovery cycle with manned Strike-Fighters, a capability that will be critical to future unmanned systems. What the linked video doesn’t show is the manned F/A-18 landing on schedule 90 seconds after the X-47B.
The X-47 is controlled on deck via a Power Glove and Control Display Unit, allowing the onboard operator to taxi the aircraft for parking or rearming and refueling. This is no easy task as an active flight deck is a busy, cramped and hazardous place during full-scale flight operations.
The X-47 is a concept program that is paving the way for future unmanned platform integration into the Navy’s air systems. The future Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS) will be able to provide extended and cost-effective surveillance while being controlled onboard the carrier by a computer. With the click of a mouse, operators will be able to vector the platform in order to provide Carrier Battle Group commanders with a higher degree of situational awareness.
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the future low-observable platform will be integrated into strike packages. The ability to penetrate an Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) undetected, strike a (presumably) protected target and return to the carrier, all without risking a human life, will undoubtedly increase the strike options for Combatant Commanders.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Northrop Grumman. Other images courtesy U.S. Navy.)