The U.S. Navy has quietly added a capability to its future carrier-launched unmanned warplane that has the potential to tilt the Pacific balance of power. On November 2, the Navy announced it would add equipment and software for aerial refueling to one of its two in-development X-47B armed drones built by Northrop Grumman.
The change could extend, by thousands of miles, the useful striking range of the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, starting in around seven years’ time. That could put them beyond the effective range of the fast attack vessels, diesel-powered submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles that China is developing in order to create a defensive perimeter around the Western Pacific.
The first X-47 took off on its inaugural flight in California in February. The roughly 40-foot-long pilotless warplane, which is largely autonomous but can also be controlled remotely by a pilot sitting in front of a computer screen, is scheduled to begin carrier tests sometime in 2013.
According to last week’s announcement, the X-47B will follow the carrier tests with in-air refueling trials in 2014. The modified X-47 will be compatible with Navy- and Air Force-style refueling gear, lending it maximum flexibility.
The Navy and Air Force use flying tankers to extend the range of their warplanes. But even with aerial refueling, traditional manned aircraft are limited by the endurance of their human pilots. A typical sortie by a Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter travels no more than 450 miles and lasts just a few hours.
The approximately 450-mile striking range of today’s carrier air wings could force the Navy to sail into China's main defensive zone in order to launch strikes on Chinese targets, thereby placing the carriers at risk.
But an unpiloted aircraft could fly as long as its equipment functioned and its onboard supply of lubricants and other fluids held out – ranging potentially thousands of miles over several days of flight. Carriers with armed, aerially-refueled drones could strike targets anywhere in the Pacific from mid-ocean safe zones.
It’s for that reason that a small contingent of analysts and officials fought to save the $1.5 billion X-47B development effort during a time, three years ago, when it was threatened by budget cuts and opposition from the Navy’s deeply traditional senior pilots. In 2008, analysts from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments gave the X-47 a 50-50 chance of being canceled in the next budget.
So CSBA analysts Robert Work and Tom Ehrhard produced a hard-hitting report extolling the X-47’s virtues. And in early 2009, the Barack Obama administration tapped Work to be the Navy’s new undersecretary. Work’s growing influence guaranteed the X-47’s survival, and the decision to add refueling gear ensured it would meet its maximum military potential.
The Navy aims to equip its carriers with an operational, X-47-style drone warplane beginning in 2018.