The Navy awarded Northrop a $636 million contract last week to build a pair of the drones -- sleek, pilotless combat planes capable of taking off and landing on a carrier. The Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program calls for the contractor to demonstrate the jet, the X-47B, by 2011, but does not guarantee the procurement of any additional planes.
"This is a big deal," said Scott Winship, the X-47B program director, at a briefing Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington. "The day this happens . . . naval aviation . . . changes forever."
The military has used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for decades, primarily for reconnaissance and surveillance. In the years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, however, the Pentagon has explored using the drones' advanced technology for combat missions. Such technology was used in missile attacks in Afghanistan shortly after the American invasion, for instance.
The Navy, burned in the 1950s and 1960s by UAVs that failed to live up to potential -- of the 746 drone anti-submarine helicopters built by the service, more than half were lost due to accidents or flight control error -- has been slow to adapt to the technology.
"The Navy's unhappy experience with [the anti-submarine drones] helped to dampen further demand for naval unmanned aerial systems in the surface warfare community for some time," wrote Thomas Ehrhard and Robert Work of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in a May paper. "Perhaps more importantly, it also helped sour the carrier aviation community on unmanned aircraft."
But with the military's increased need to operate at distances far from potential targets, the idea of a combat-ready UAV, able to operate at sea, has become an attractive option for the Navy. "This is a huge leap of faith for a lot of naval aviators," says Tim Beard, Northrop's manager of carrier suitability and integration.
While a typical single-pilot plane is limited to 10 to 12 hours of operation because of the need for pilot rest and refueling, the mission endurance of the X-47B is expected to be at least 50 hours. The additional time would allow the drone to take off further from a potential target and loiter over an area longer than was previously possible. The fixed-wing plane also would be able to fly in weather too unmanageable for a piloted aircraft.
The X-47B would use stealth technology to conduct both surveillance and bombing missions. It would be equipped with weapons bays capable of carrying 12 small-diameter, 250-pound bombs.
The jets would be controlled remotely from the carrier, although the equipment is expected to be portable enough so that it could be packed in a suitcase and operated from other locations.
The first flight is scheduled for late 2009. Additional testing and land-based carrier integration will continue through 2010. The first sea-based carrier landing is expected during the summer of 2011.
The Navy wants to see how well the plane performs during the demonstration before requesting funding for the purchase of more X-47Bs. However, a successful demonstration could set the stage for large-scale production in support of the Naval Aviation Master Plan, which includes plans for an operational Unmanned Combat Air System around 2018.