* Unmanned plane launched from aircraft carrier
* X-47B drone is long-range, "stealthy" aircraft
* Drones could be answer to Chinese, Iranian "anti-access"
By David Alexander
ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH, May 14 The U.S.
Navy made aviation history on Tuesday by launching an unmanned
jet off an aircraft carrier for the first time, taking an
important step toward expanded use of drones by the American
military with an eye on possible rivals like China and Iran.
The bat-winged X-47B stealth drone roared off the USS George
H.W. Bush near the coast of Virginia and flew a series of
pre-programmed maneuvers around the ship before veering away
toward a Naval air station in Maryland where it was scheduled to
"This is really a red-letter day. May 14 we all saw history
happen" said Rear Admiral Ted Branch, the Atlantic naval air
commander. "It's a marker ... between naval aviation as we've
known it and the future of naval aviation with the launch of the
Because of its stealth potential and a range nearly twice
that of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the X-47B and its
successors are seen as a potential answer to the threat posed by
medium-range anti-ship missiles developed by China and Iran,
defense analysts said.
The missiles and other so-called anti-access, area-denial
weapons would force U.S. aircraft carriers to operate far enough
from shore that piloted aircraft would have to undergo refueling
to carry out their missions, leaving them vulnerable to attack.
But with a range of 2,000 nautical miles, an unmanned jet
like the X-47B could give the Navy both a long-range strike and
"That makes it strategically very important," said Anthony
Cordesman, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies. He described the drone as
"essentially a really long-range stealth system."
"As we rebalance to the Pacific, the Navy is going to
increasingly need range," said Brien Alkire, a senior researcher
at RAND's Project Air Force. "That's something an unmanned
system can bring them that they don't really have right now and
give them the ability to operate from a good standoff range.
The X-47B, one of only two demonstrator models made by
Northrop Grumman Corp, carries the equivalent of two
precision-guided bombs. It was catapulted from the aircraft
carrier on Tuesday using the same sling-shot system that sends
manned aircraft aloft.
LANDING ON BOARD
It is scheduled to undergo two weeks of testing aboard the
carrier leading up to a landing on the ship, in which a plane's
tailhook grabs a wire that will slow it and keep it from
While the carrier takeoff represented a significant
milestone, defense analysts are focused on the next step, when
the Navy attempts to use what has been learned with the X-47B to
develop an unmanned aircraft for actual operations.
"The X-47B is a great story," said Mark Gunzinger, a defense
analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments
think-tank. "It's a milestone and a step forward for unmanned,
carrier-based aviation. But I think the real story is what's
next. How do we operationalize this capability?"
Future variants of the drone could probably be designed for
full-spectrum broadband stealth, which means it would be hard
for radar to locate it, analysts said. That level of stealth
would be one of the drone's major defenses.
U.S. drones currently in use in places like Afghanistan and
the tribal areas of Pakistan, like the Predator and Reaper, are
not up against any air defenses and are not stealthy aircraft.
Because of its long range and the Navy's need to have it
take off and land, day and night, from an aircraft carrier, the
X-47B has been designed to operate with far greater autonomy
than the remotely piloted aircraft currently in use.
That has raised concerns among some organizations worried
about the heavy U.S. reliance on drones in warfare and the
rising use of autonomous robots by the American military.
Human Rights Watch, in a report launching its recent
campaign against "killer robots," cited the X-47B as one of
several weapons that represent a transition toward development
of fully autonomous arms that require little human intervention.
A follow-on program - known as the Unmanned Carrier Launched
Airborne Surveillance and Strike System, or UCLASS - is expected
to build on what was learned with the X-47B to produce
An initial request for design proposals is expected to be
issued by the Navy some time this month. Other aircraft makers,
from Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co to
General Atomics - are expected to compete to participate.