Video: Drone Landing Shows Carrier Relevance

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said this week’s first-ever landing of an experimental drone on an aircraft carrier shows how the nuclear-powered fleet will remain relevant for decades to come.

The X-47B unmanned aircraft’s arrested landing aboard the USS George H.W. Bush on Wednesday in the Atlantic Ocean was the “winning argument” in the debate over whether the Navy’s fleet of nuclear-powered carriers are too vulnerable to anti-ship weapons and other technology, according to Mabus.

“It was a historic moment for aviation, a remarkable achievement of naval power and a powerful demonstration of why aircraft carriers will remain relevant and critical to America’s future naval supremacy,” he wrote in an op-ed published yesterday in The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

The drone, one of two prototypes built by Falls Church, Va.-based Northrop Grumman Corp., completed two carrier landings and takeoffs aboard the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier. A third planned touchdown was aborted after one of the aircraft’s navigational computers failed.

The event was the culmination of a development program called the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, which has cost about $1.4 billion over eight years.

“It has been one of the Navy’s most successful, meeting all required objectives within budget and on time,” Mabus wrote.

The effort was designed to demonstrate the technology’s potential and pave the way for a larger program, called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, to build an armed, carrier-based drone fleet.

The Navy wants to add operational drones to air wings in 2019 to extend the range of carrier groups. Unmanned aircraft can stay aloft for more than a day — three times longer than manned planes. The systems will be initially used for surveillance and refueling missions, and eventually for strike operations.

“The operational unmanned aircraft … will radically change the way presence and combat power is delivered from aircraft carriers by conducting surveillance and strike missions at extreme distances and over very long periods of time,” Mabus wrote.

Unmanned aircraft will put fewer sailors and Marines in harms’ way, expand action further from the ship and create efficiencies in part because they don’t require flights to keep pilots proficient, according to the Navy secretary.

“Not only will the future carrier air wing be more combat effective, they will cost less to build, and less expensive airframes mean we can build more and use them differently, like developing swarm tactics and performing maneuvers that require more g-force than a human body can withstand,” Mabus wrote.

Still, the Navy’s top civilian acknowledged that carriers face numerous threats.

“Potential adversaries are developing more advanced anti-ship cruise missiles and ballistic missiles for targeting ships at sea,” he wrote. “However, these same missile technologies pose a greater threat to immobile airfields ashore.”

He added, “Targeting information for fixed shore bases is relatively easy. A moving carrier far at sea is a much harder problem for our adversaries to solve, and our advancing electronic warfare capabilities make it even harder.”

The Navy plans to issue a draft request for proposals for the first phase of the UCLASS program in August, followed by a formal request to start the competition next year. The service would pick a single winner by the end of 2014.

Northrop Grumman is expected to square off against other defense giants for the work, including Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Lockheed Martin is pitching the Sea Ghost, Boeing the Phantom Ray, and General Atomics the Sea Avenger.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • STemplar

    I don’t think there is a question that carriers are relevant and very useful. The real debate is how many? Should resources be shifted to different platforms. If you’re talking dealing with access denial then you are talking SSGN. In addition the whole idea of UCLASS is clearly in its infancy. This is the starting pistol shot, just as the Predator was in 2001/2002, with the first operational use of the UCLASS I would expect and explosion in ideas and follow on systems/platforms. Perhaps even hulls specifically built as drone carriers. Its clear the system is going to drive alot of rethink in naval operations period and not just NAVAIR.


      Do you remember that Tom Clancy novel in which Japan acquires nukes? Mind you, it is fiction, but it shows how much power is invested in a carrier, and what happens when we have a few carriers down. The current number (I am going to count the Ford as active, though it isn’t) seems fine to me; at least one carrier is stuck in a dry dock, getting its reactor refueled. One or two are in homeport. The rest are on patrol. Sounds pretty good, but any number lower, and we are risking our power projection.

    • Rest Pal

      The question of how many depends on who your enemy is. If it’s Afghanistan or Somalia, the number is 0. If the enemy is Russia or China, then it will depend on what type of war the US will be engaging in – if it’s nuclear, than 0; if it’s conventional, then the number of will probably be in the range of 500 – 1000, plus a war time production rate of 5-10 a month to replenish the sunk ones.

    • Iknowit

      Question you miss is what does this mean to future carrier design? Once (and if) piloted planes are gonewith know this is a long time out, but fun to think about

    • Mark

      By law we are suppose to have 11 carriers.

  • hibeam

    I think the landing shows drone relevance. Nice try though.

  • hibeam

    It was considerate of the Chinese to not take control and buzz the tower. The temptation must have been overwhelming.

  • blight_

    What are the supposed advantages of adding UAV’s to the mix? Perhaps it’s pilot turnaround, since you can have a group of pilots teleoperate the UAVs as-needed, then hand off to auto-pilot as needed. They might be smaller and perhaps more expendable, but aircraft aren’t necessarily /easy to replace/. It isn’t expendable until you can re-load.


      Uhm, the fact that no pilot will be in danger from the enemy. Is that not reason enough?

    • STemplar

      Range. Strike radius on a CSG tripled. Endurance with less effort for pilots. As the tech matures the sheer physics of what can be done in an unmanned platform vs. manned. They arent cheap but they are less expensive.

    • tiger

      By deleting the human from the design? No need for life support systems
      & ejection seats. More room for fuel, gear & ammo. Higher G limits. Less time carrier qualifying. Smaller air frame uses less hanger/ deck space. No POW’s, No blood to wash off….

  • Guest

    Now for some unmanned aircraft carriers.

  • Jacob

    Couldn’t drones also potentially make aircraft carriers obsolete as well? If the advantage of drone aircraft is that they have longer range and endurance, then why put them on a carrier when you can just attack from land bases at a distance? Land-based attack UAVs don’t need to be hauled around on an expensive mothership and don’t need ASW or Aegis-equipped escorts to follow them around.

  • stephen russell

    Heard on Hugh Hewitt 870 AM radio about making carriers smaller vs bigger IE rvive the Escort class carrier of WW2 again vs the Nimitz GH Bush size carriers & then museumize the Nimitz carriers for reuse

  • Tweedle Dee

    I think we have reached the future! Next up, hoverboards!


      Tweedle Dumb.

    • Back to the future

      Unfortunately, hoverboards don’t work over water.

  • majr0d

    The success of landing a drone on a carrier is no small feat but beware the snake oil salesman.

    “Unmanned aircraft can stay aloft for more than a day — three times longer than manned planes. The systems will be initially used for surveillance and refueling missions, and eventually for strike operations.”

    Surveillance and refuel drones can fly slow and don’t need to maneuver. Strike drones are going to have to fly with a significant load and very different flight profile. Speed and maneuver suck gas. They aren’t going to achieve three times the endurance unless they are carrying a hand grenade or the performance of predator is adequate.

    They also quite conspicuously ignore the enemy is going to try and shoot down and jam the drone.

    Drones are good but watch the overselling.

    • STemplar

      They can be mid air refueled so they will have better endurance. You cant leave fighter pilots in the cockpit too long. I dont think anyone has ever said the enemy wont shoot at them but in terms of human life thats a plus not a minus l would think. In regards to jamming the enemy has to have a couple key things, knowledge its there and something to jam. One of the ideas was higher autonomy so that in essence its a reloadable cruise missile in the strike profile. Also like l said before this is the Wright flyer of carrier drones. Does anyone really think this is the end set of capabilities tech will produce? A drone that can perform high G turns that would black out a human pilot is not that far off. I think an air superiority model is ways off yet but certainly a high speed mule to say accompany F22s and act as a bird dog and extra AMRAAM magazine is doable as well.

    • tiger

      We can kiss the U-2 good bye. A good thing after 60 years. Mission #1 I want the X-47b for is refueling. Next would be a early warning ability. The long loiter time is nice to have. Just need to figure how to lose the big dumb dish. #3 is a S-3 replacement.

      • majr0d

        The X-47B has a six hour endurance.

        That’s kind of my point. Mabus is talking about the Predator and Global Hawk and creating a link to the X-47B. It’s like equating an F16 to a B52 when it comes to endurance. They are overselling.

      • tmb2

        They already tried to kiss the U-2 good bye with the Global Hawk a decade ago. The cost/benefit ratio couldn’t justify scrapping the U-2 fleet.


          Nah. We should have kept the SR-71s, though. (Pst, Aurora, will yah show up for once?!)

          • tiger

            Nice toy? Yes. Great engineering?Yes. Need a special bird, fuel & crew to take photos at mach 3? Not really in 2013. The U2 can go out to pasture as well.

          • USS ENTERPRISE

            Are you kidding me? Spy satellites can’t be scrambled to stare at a Russian ICBM site, or a Chinese naval port. SR-71’s, operating at altitude at Mach 3, could easily, and safely, get over there, take the pictures you want, cause a few UFO sightings, and come home. Canceling it what a mistake; the U-2, on the other hand, should have received the ax; not nearly as fast as a -71, which is what you need in quick surveillance.

        • EW3

          You are comparing apples and oranges.

          You are comparing an already developed and built aircraft with already trained pilots and crews to new builds. Of course it’s cheaper to keep the U-2s flying.

          While the U-2 is a capable aircraft for certain missions, I don’t recall they are building any more of them.

          When they do I will concede your argument.

          • tiger

            We do not need 60 year old planes to take photos. Like the SR. it will be put to pasture.

    • Warfiter

      I agee and also worry about the vulnerability of the long range communications links required for drones to operate at long ranges from their launch point. They are secure when the battle is against dudes wearing flip flops, but against a near-peer with growing ASAT and EW capabilities, there are also advantages to having a manned platform. Mitigation measures incude being able to deploy microsatellites from the same carrier for punctual mission support, using other air platforms to serve as re-broadcast stations, and developping the means for unattended systems to complete their missions entirely autonomously.

      Some of these solutions are more achievable and palatable than others. The essence here is that a whole raft of supporting capabilities have to fall into place for drones to truly come into their own.

  • hunter76

    Drones are definitely the future. But they don’t need nuclear carriers. Nuclear carriers remain much too juicy a target.

  • goody

    The air force relied upon the navy, marines and army to secure fixed fields to sling B29s’ at Japan WWII. Even then, the AF needed to get close enough for round trips.., thus Okinawa and Nagasaki, Hiroshima…, end of war. At the end, the navy, marines and army depended upon the AF to save asses. So.., they all needed each other to slam-bam.., for Uncle Sam…, game over.

  • brownie

    The whole game plan is extended range sufficient to strike deep within the heart of China.

  • PolicyWonk

    The X-47B unmanned aircraft’s arrested landing aboard the USS George H.W. Bush on Wednesday in the Atlantic Ocean was the “winning argument” in the debate over whether the Navy’s fleet of nuclear-powered carriers are too vulnerable to anti-ship weapons and other technology, according to Mabus.
    Ok, I’ll bite: How does landing a drone on a carrier demonstrate that a carrier is somehow less vulnerable to anti-ship missiles? How is this a “winning argument” of any kind?

    I happily agree that demonstrating UCAV’s can perform flight operations on a carrier is a serious milestone. But that (to me) has little to do with addressing vulnerability to anti-ship missiles.

  • S O

    They blew 1.4 billion bucks on it and didn’t even intend to get lots of actually combat-ready drones for it. They didn’t even plan to have a production-ready design. It’s all just experimental.

    This is utterly wasteful. The Swedes or Israelis, event he Germans would have pulled off much more with the same money.

    1.4 billion for this is really a subsidy of for an inefficient corporation, and much of the money will go straight into executives’ or shareholders’ coffers.

    “(…)this week’s first-ever landing of an experimental drone on an aircraft carrier (…)”

    I’m sure this is flat-out wrong. It’s even wrong if one ignores rotary aviation (there was a rotary drone in the 60’s!), for I recall photos of drones operating from carriers. This was at most the first autonomous drone landing on a carrier, and who cares about this autonomy? The landing approach is within visual distance, remote-control is easy technically!

    • tmb2

      The Swedes, the Israelis, and the Germans don’t own an aircraft carrier.

      This is the first time a UAV has done a trap on an aircraft carrier. Helicopters don’t have to catch wires. Remote control is technically easy. Landing a plane on a moving carrier by remote control probably is not. BTW, all of our UAVs have automatic landing systems.

  • Tony C.

    The drone’s are a risk mitigation philosophy, if the didn’t work then the US Navy didn’t blow more than $1.4 billion dollars on a bad idea. Now that they are proven, the US navy can move on to the next program. Although $1.4 billion over 8 years sounds like alot of money, it is in line with other DARPA programs.

  • hibeam

    Add aircraft carriers to the many things drones can land on or send to the bottom.

  • dave

    Interesting that it took off without the raising the blast shield. It’s that SOP when aircraft is taking off so the jet blast doesn’t blow crew people off the deck?