Unmanned aircraft, and warfare in general, took a serious step forward Friday when the Navy’s X-47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle demonstrator took to the skies for the first time.
The stealthy jet flew in a circular pattern known as a racetrack with its landing gear down (standard for first flights) for 29 minutes at an altitude of 5,000 in the airspace around Edwards Air Force Base in California, by all accounts the flight was a success.
From a Navy announcement on the Feb. 4 flight:
“Today we got a glimpse towards the future as the Navy’s first-ever tailless, jet-powered unmanned aircraft took to the skies,” remarked Capt. Jaime Engdahl, Program Manager for the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration, after observing the X-47B maiden flight at EAFB today.
As we said above, this is a major event in the development of unmanned combat planes. For the last decade, slow and unstealthy MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers have owned the armed drone mission. The problem is, these planes aren’t likely to last long in a serious war.
While the Air Force has publicly fielded one stealth drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, that plane remains unarmed (at least officially). The Northrop Grumman-built X-47B is meant to prove the concept of a aircraft carrier-based, combat drone capable of doing everything from ISR missions to close air support. This is history being made.
The flight is the first of 50 planned for the rest of the year where Navy officials will put the jet (and eventually a second X-47B) through increasingly challenging flight situations to make sure the plane works as designed. Once this is finished, the two jets will move to Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland where they’ll gear up for carrier testing.
Stealthy, survivable planes like the X-47B and it’s successors will play an increasingly important role in the Pentagon’s plans to overcome advanced anti access and area denial systems. The planes will someday be capable of being refueled in flight; allowing them to take off from carriers far from shore and fly into relatively high threat environments where they can work with other stealth jets such as the B-2, F-22, F-35 to accomplish their mission. However, one of the big challenges in sending these planes downrange for missions like this will be data assurance; basically protecting the signals that control the aircraft from being hijacked by the enemy.
Another pic after the jump.