A new Cat for carrier decks

Nice to see Northrop carrying on Grumman’s naval aviation legacy by winning the US Navy’s unmanned combat air system demonstrator programme. But it is only a first step.

Now the X-47B UCAS-D has to convince the Navy that an unmanned aircraft can take the place of a manned aircraft on its precision-managed carrier decks – then Northrop Grumman can face off against Boeing again in a competition to develop an operational N-UCAS by 2020.

Assuming the programme survives that long.

A Cat with no tailPast unmanned combat air vehicle efforts have had mixed fortunes. The original DARPA/USAF UCAV demonstration was spectacularly successful, culminating in 2005 with Boeing’s two X-45As autonomously conducting a simulated preemptive destruction of enemy air defences mission.

But the follow-on J-UCAS programme involving DARPA, the US Air Force and Navy, Boeing and Northrop Grumman became too complex and was cancelled by the Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrenniel Defense Review – just as Boeing’s larger X-45C was about to roll out – because the USAF wanted an even bigger vehicle.

X-45C – nowhere to go?

Northrop had targeted the Navy from early on, and while Boeing’s X-45A and X-45C were land-based its X-47B was designed from the outset for carrier-based operation. When J-UCAS was cancelled, and replaced by the Navy’s more focused carrier demonstration, Northrop continued building the X-47B.

X-47B – taking shape

Now Northrop gets to do the hard part. Boeing demonstrated with the X-45A that unmanned aircraft can perform a combat mission. But they operated in the empty expanse of Edwards AFB. The X-47B will have to demonstrate that it can operate safely on and around a carrier, without disrupting the tight cycle of manned aircraft operations.

While the Air Force has the luxury of enough airspace and concrete to keep its manned and unmanned aircraft separated on the ground and in the air, on a Navy carrier they must be able to operate side-by-side. Each N-UCAS on a carrier deck is one less F/A-18E/F or F-35C.

The launch and recovery cycle on a carrier is tightly constrained, as returning aircraft short on fuel have nowhere else to go if the deck is occupied. The Navy cannot afford to shut down manned aircraft operations every time it launches and recovers an N-UCAS.

While the X-45A UCAV demonstration showed unmanned aircraft can be used for combat, the X-47B UCAS-D – if it succeeds – will show unmanned strike aircraft can replace manned strike aircraft. And that is a whole different ballgame.

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