Navy to Conduct First Aerial Refueling of X-47B Carrier Drone

131109-N-ZZ999-176The Navy plans to perform an aerial refueling for the first time on its carrier-launched demonstrator drone aircraft, the X-47B, within the next few weeks, service officials said.

The refueling, to take place at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., will have the X-47B link up with an Omega air refueling tanker, Navy officials told Military.com. Omega is a contractor that works with the Defense Department.

The X-47B made history when it flew from a carrier in May and November of 2013 and is now working on streamlining carrier deck operations and maneuvers with manned aircraft.

The Navy has launched and landed a carrier-based drone in rapid succession with an F/A-18 fighter jet as part of a series of joint manned and unmanned flight tests aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in August of last year off the coast of Norfolk, Va., service officials said.

After an eight minute flight, the X-47B executed an arrested landing, folded its wings and taxied out of the landing area before moving out of the way for an F/A-18 to land, Navy officials said.

Navy engineers worked on some slight modifications to the X-47B aircraft in order to allow it to both land and integrate in rapid succession with fixed-wing fighter jets.

The refueling will happen as the UCLASS program faces stiff criticism from prominent members of Congress who continue to push for a stealthy, long-endurance, penetrating strike platform.

An ongoing Pentagon intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, review is currently exploring the range of desired capabilities for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Aircraft Surveillance and Strike system, or UCLASS.

The thrust of the examination focuses on how stealthy the new first-of-its kind carrier-launched drone needs to be, how much of a weapons payload it will be configured to carry and deliver and how far it will be engineered to fly with and without aerial refueling.

The Navy had planned to launch a competition among vendors to build the UCLASS through the release of what’s called a Request For Proposal, or RFP this past summer. However, concerns from lawmakers, analysts and some Pentagon leaders wound up resulting in a substantial delay for the competition in order to allow time for a formal review of needed requirements for the platform.

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said the ongoing review is making progress but the Pentagon and Navy are still not ready to move forward yet with a formal proposal.

“We decided this year we were almost ready to launch the RFP, but we decided we need to take a pause because we want to consider the UCLASS as part of the joint family of unmanned surveillance strike systems and make sure that we’re going after the right capabilities,” Work said at a recent speech at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Work was likely referring to the manner in which every major platform or weapons system needs to be integrated with other services in order to operate properly in a joint combat environment, said Loren Thompson, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank.

Aerial refueling technology is central to the debates about UCLASS because larger fuel tanks affect the size, shape and contours of the body of the aircraft and affect its stealth properties by changing the radar cross-section of the aircraft.

Some design proposals for UCLASS would make the drone less stealthy and less able to carry a larger weapons payload – yet be able to travel very long distances as an ISR platform. Other proposals focus more on stealth and weapons payload.

If UCLASS were designed for maximum stealth and weapons-carrying potential from its inception, engineers would most likely envision an aircraft with a comparatively smaller tank in order to lower the radar cross-section of the aircraft. A differently-configured fuel tank might result in the need for more aerial refueling as a way to extend the aircraft’s range and ensure long-endurance ISR, analysts have explained.

In 2013, the Navy awarded four contracts valued at $15 million for preliminary design review for the UCLASS to Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

The ongoing uncertainty and disagreements about UCLASS requirements could mean that the platform might wind up getting cancelled if sequestration returns in 2016, Thompson added.

— Kris Osborn can be reached at kris.osborn@military.com

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • blight_

    “If UCLASS were designed for maximum stealth and weapons-carrying potential from its inception, engineers would most likely envision an aircraft with a comparatively smaller tank in order to lower the radar cross-section of the aircraft.”

    So…we’re giving up range just for reduced cross section? This doesn’t sound wise. We’re going to be more dependent on aerial refueling than ever before, and those assets aren’t stealthy.

    • Guest

      Well, it’s obvious that you are not an aircraft designer…

      • Dfens

        Says Joe the Plumber…

        • blight_

          Guest the Guest, you mean.

          • Dfens

            It’s certainly not Guest the aircraft designer.

    • steve

      They’re still figuring out what exact role this aircraft is for. Long-endurance, large weapons payload and stealth conflict in the final design. This is a first-of-its-kind aircraft, whichever design they pursue next, they have aerial refueling and carrier operations figured out already., that’s huge progress.

      • blight_

        It was born from a demonstrator and probably wasn’t /optimized/ for a particular role. I can only hope that figuring out its place in the Navy doesn’t cost more than a billion in R&D.

  • oblatt23

    The problem is that the technology is better than the F-35 and yet it must not upset F-35 production and the 5 decades of graft involved.

    As Loren Thompson says perhaps its better for Lockheed if the whole program is just canceled.

    • Dfens

      There is no “perhaps” about it. Lockheed is better off if they cancel F-35. They don’t want to build that airplane. They never have.

      • crackedlenses

        Then perhaps it would be worthwhile to make them go through with production…

        • Dfens

          That’s what I am saying. It’s not that the F-35 is so great. It isn’t. It also isn’t as bad as all the propaganda says. The airplane is as good as we’re going to get out of the procurement system we have. It’s better than the F-16 and F-18 just because there’s been enough of a technology turnover since they were introduced that we need an airplane of that sort in the inventory. If we can get the procurement system turned around, we might be able to have a new good airplane after a 5 year development. Until that happens, it’s smarter to make Lockheed build the F-35 than it is to scrap it. Anyone who tells you different either hasn’t thought things through or is working for Lockheed.

          • Also Dfens, Can I, Joe The Plumber, add like the extra engine for the -35, we don’t have a backup plan for the F-35. Unless Air Force got smart and started by F/A -18 Advanced Super Hornets. But we know that isn’t going to happen. Makes way too much sense.

          • Dfens

            If you were paying even a little bit of attention, you’d know the Air Force already has a 2 engine stealth fighter. They bought as many of them as Lockheed told them they needed, 175. The Navy is supposed to be starting a program to replace the F-18 in its fighter role. That’s supposed to be a 2 engine airplane, and very likely Northrop Grumman will propose their old F-23 design from the Air Force’s ATF program for that competition. That design should be an automatic win given that it has already been prototyped and flown. Certainly nothing the Air Force or Navy has now is even close to its equal, nor will anything the Lockheed/Boeing team comes up with be even close.

          • Dfens

            “The broader problem is that two of the three are running out of work,” Aboulafia tells Fortune. “There’s nothing wrong with Northrop Grumman or Boeing as companies, but Northrop Grumman hasn’t built a new military aircraft in many years, and Boeing’s legacy military aircraft will end production by the end of this decade. So this [Long Range Strike Bomber Program] becomes make or break, basically.” — http://fortune.com/2015/03/05/long-range-strike-b

            Hmm, it would be sad if NG were gobbled up by Boeing before they could propose the F-23 to the Navy for their F-18 replacement program. If Boeing buys them, they probably get the rights to the F-23 design back, and there is no way in hell they will ever propose that design in another fighter jet competition. It would make them look bad for being part of the F-22 team in the ATF competition. Such a f’ed up business…

      • t1oracle

        If Lockheed wanted it canceled they would get it canceled. They want to milk us for our tax dollars.

        • Dfens

          They are pumping out the propaganda right now to get it cancelled. Apparently everyone thinks it’s a pure coincidence that all we hear is how crappy an airplane or tank or ship or whatever is just as it starts to go into production. No matter how many weapons programs end just as they start into production, these people can’t figure out the game that’s being played or notice a pattern of behavior. That’s why the CEO’s of big defense contractors pull down $25 million a year when everyone else is getting laid off or losing their pension or health care benefits.

  • Taylor

    Maybe they could eventually have different ones for different purposes rather than trying to make one type fit all purposes, although that would cost more money. Perhaps this one should stay with its original purpose so its usefulness to the fleet won’t be delayed?

    • Bernard

      That would cost less money since the individual aircraft will be simpler. They’ll just need to use enough similar parts to keep the maintenance reasonable.

    • Fatman

      I agree! The logical thing to do here is build a family of aircraft to handle the different tasks needed. And in reality that’s where we’ll be in the next decade or so. The problem is that congress and the navy are trying to make this historic aircraft a one size fits all solution instead of being practical about it.

      • Dfens

        The F-35 A/B/C is a “family of aircraft”. Apparently you people haven’t noticed that it takes 2 to 3 decades of development to field a new airplane these days. So you think it’s reasonable to wait 75 years to come up with a unique airplane for each service? Either fix what’s wrong with the procurement system or quit complaining about the products it produces. Hell, your tax dollars are providing these defense contractors with the very profit incentive that encourages them to f you over. If it were me, I’d be pissed off about that. Hey wait, I am pissed off about that. How about you?

        • Fatman

          yes, let me get right on that fix

          • Dfens

            Or you could keep on complaining with no viable options. Personally, I prefer to attack the actual problem.

          • tiger

            Well said….

        • t1oracle

          The F35 only comes in three versions, and those three versions each have to take on multiple roles. The suggestion here is a family of drones just for the Navy, which each filling just a single role within the Navy. The individual complexity would be much lower.

          Furthermore, reusing the airframe was the F-35’s biggest mistake, and reusing the engine was the second biggest mistake. Instead of trying to make the same jet do everything, just build interchangeable parts to fit multiple UAV’s each fulfilling niche roles. The family relationship would then be much looser and more flexible.

          • Dfens

            Right, we’d be much better off to wait the better part of a century for all these unique airframes and engines. That would really put us on the cutting edge.

          • Drew

            I think you’re missing his point, or just trying to be argumentative (you tend to do that a lot). I belive that he’s proposing to field the ISR platform now, configured just like the navy intended; then once that’s fielded, take the aircraft, tweak and tune it, increase the size of the fuel tank and add some weapon stations and field a deep strike version 5 years from now. And then reduce the tank, take off the weapons pylon and add a bay rework the body, and create a stealth version for IOC in 10 to 15 years. All would use the same avionics and software where appropriate (auto-pilot, taxing algorithms, etc.). This way we can get a working aircraft to the fleet for operations and field testing and as the technology matures, the next version gets a little bit better and fills a new role.

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    I’d be perfectly happy if the Navy can settle on a goal and get in motion to achieve it. Trying to achieve great “transformational” leaps forward has been a recipe for delay, cost overruns, and degraded performance. Integrating UAVs is a big enough step; a stealthy ISR UAV is quite big enough. Given the attention that peer opponents pay to crippling network operations, I’d be very happy to see a first generation naval UAV that starts as an ISR platform and eventually mutates to include a version that can serve as a communications node.

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    A question for Dfens, or anyone else …. would a naval F-23, which would be substantially heavier than the AF prototype, come within the ability of EMALS to launch? Even if you’re willing to limit the plane to Ford class carriers (there should be half a dozen by the time the aircraft is available), can we reasonably expect it to be light enough?

    I believe DefSec Carter said recently that the F-35 is the last manned aircraft he expects the Navy to build, in any case.