Future Warfare: The X-47B
Pentagon leaders often speak of the need for disruptive technologies in the Fleet to mitigate the risks of shrinking defense budgets, declining U.S. military technological superiority and improving adversary capabilities. Last week, a remarkable example of disruptive innovation occurred. How did the Navy react? It simply reaffirmed its unimaginative plan to send its carrier-launched drone to the boneyard—and potentially sentence the aircraft carrier to a similar fate.
The Navy’s test carrier drone, the X-47B UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator), recently participated in the first-ever fully autonomous aerial refueling at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. Though the implications of this engineering feat are wide-ranging and not wholly known at this point, successful demonstration of unmanned aerial refueling does shed light on several ongoing arguments about the future of U.S. military aviation.
First, the success of X-47B in breaking engineering barriers supports the expansion of unmanned aviation both within the carrier air wing and throughout the military as a whole. This is an autonomous aircraft as opposed to remotely piloted, and it just completed one of the most difficult tasks to perform with another aircraft through refueling. The Department of Defense has been working on developing a stabilized drogue to enable more reliable aerial refueling, but the X-47B did not even use this new system. Rather, the autonomous aircraft did all the work itself, demonstrating incredible feedback sensitivity.
Perhaps the reason there is not more fanfare or appreciation for the leap ahead in technological advancement is because the successful demonstration of autonomous aerial refueling, for some, supports an argument for replacing more F-35 Joint Strike Fighter carrier variants with X-47B-like platforms. There is a suggestion that such a progression would put the Navy’s sixth-generation fighter (F/A-XX) in jeopardy, a program which enjoys considerable support within the naval tactical aviation community. In this budgetary environment, relying on proven technologies—like those in the X-47B program—is a far better bet than the imagined, untested technologies in the yet-to-begin F/A-XX program.
Further, Pentagon leaders are fighting with Congress—specifically Chairmen John McCain, Mac Thornberry, and Randy Forbes—about what those unmanned combat aircraft should do in a program called the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS). Should the UCLASS merely serve as the eyes and ears of the aircraft carrier with limited strike capability in only non-contested environments, or should it be capable of striking enemies through their denied zones?
Last week, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus weighed in, commenting bluntly that the F-35C “almost certainly will be the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.” This would seem to signal his strong support for the transition to unmanned platforms, especially for deep penetrating strike missions. Coincidentally (or not), Secretary Mabus last week also created two new civilian and military positions to focus solely on unmanned systems within the Navy to recognize the untapped potential of these types of platforms.
The UCAS-D’s successful autonomous refueling means that its impressive range of 2,400 miles can now be extended by tanker, thus allowing the carrier drone to carry vastly more ordnance. Already the X-47B carries about 85 percent of the payload of a F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—and carries it three times further. Even if tankers must turn around at 600 miles from the outer edge of an adversary’s denied zone, this breakthrough capability gives the X-47B enough “legs” to deliver true firepower anywhere US commanders want, especially if the ordnance delivered is capable of extended range flight of its own.
Without a refuelable UCLASS in the future carrier air wing, the Navy might as well take the “strike” out of carrier strike group. A key value of an aircraft carrier is its ability to accept new planes when the character of warfare changes, something it has done remarkably well for over seven decades. That change is happening now, and failure to procure a strike version of the UCLASS renders the Navy’s investment in new aircraft carriers far less cost-effective.
Outside of the carrier air wing, autonomous aerial refueling could result in several other force employment changes. For instance, the Marine Corps is currently putting the finishing touches on its program to develop a tanker variant of the V-22 Osprey. Combining tanker Ospreys with refuelable low-end land-based drones could result in much-improved reconnaissance abilities for the austere Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces that have become a staple of American forward presence. The Army has already developed a manned-unmanned teaming system for its Apache helicopters to control drones. Tanker V-22s could implement a version of the same to control and refuel fleets of unmanned aircraft and achieve true persistent surveillance. Even within the Navy—which will soon have V-22s onboard carriers to deliver supplies—the possibilities are enticing and need to be explored further through testing and experimentation.
These are only a small subset of the possibilities that opened up over the skies of Pax River last weekend. To fully exploit such disruptive technology, the Department of Defense should open access to the UCAS-D program to aviators from every service. Despite a long record of achievement, the Navy still maintains that it will shut down the UCAS-D program and send the X-47B to the aircraft boneyard in Arizona with less than a quarter of its rated flight hours used up. This is a true waste. As we suggested in 2013, the Navy should reconsider this policy and allow creative military thinkers to continue experimental testing of the two planes beyond fiscal year 2016.
The rhetoric of Secretary Mabus points the Navy in the right direction for the future. Now, he must follow through with action. Extending the UCAS-D test program and refining UCLASS requirements toward a high-end strike aircraft would cement Mabus’ legacy and truly put the Navy on the path to continued dominance in the future.