orthrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE: NOC) and the U.S. Navy have conducted the first fly-in arrested landing of the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator. [Northrop Grumman]

90 years ago, in the fall of 1922, US Navy pilots made the first landings on America’s first-ever aircraft carrier. (Okay, the British did it first). Just a few weeks from now, a Navy aircraft will make history again — except this time there won’t be a pilot. Meet the Navy’s new robotic Top Gun, the X-47B:

The Northrop Grumman-built X-47B, aka the UCAS (unmanned combat air system), is getting ready to be the first robotic aircraft, aka UAV (unmanned air vehicle) to take off and land on an aircraft carrier. On Friday, as the video shows, it took another big step forward by making its first landing using what the Navy calls “arresting gear,” the complex system of cables, brakes, and shock absorbers built into a carrier deck — or, in this case, a test facility on land at Naval Air Station Patuxent River — that Navy pilots use to bring their aircraft to a screeching halt before they run right off the back end of the carrier’s flight deck and fall into the water. For humans, learning to land on a carrier and snag the arresting gear wire is one of the most demanding feats possible, with stress levels in some cases going higher than in actual combat. Teaching a robot how to do it is a historic achievement. But of course the real test will come on the actual aircraft carrier.

The Navy actually put an X-47B aboard a carrier, the USS Truman, this past December, but that was just to teach the robot’s ability to navigate the complex, congested traffic of a carrier deck without running into anything. The big day will come later this month when it actually lands on a carrier. ” “When that happens, people will say ‘wow,'” Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, told me recently. “There’ll be a lot of pictures, and I think that will start a discussion.”

From Greenert’s perspective, the value of the X-47B isn’t just that it’s cool technology. It’s a proto-prototype for a larger, heavily armed drone called the UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System) that will provide a long-range bomber capability that carrier-based aircraft currently flying, like the F/A-18E/F and F-35C, do not have. (The Navy plans to release a formal UCLASS Request For Proposals to defense companies this summer). That range, in turn, is a crucial component of future “AirSea Battle” tactics against high-tech foes like, for example, China. So while the drone may be gee-whiz now, it is the forerunner of something deadly serious.


  • PolicyWonk

    Hopefully, they’ve bothered to secure the communications and navigations links to this type of drone as a primary task.

    To find out that the people involved in the drone programs didn’t bother with this in other models since used in combat was stupefying.

  • CharleyA

    Psssst, LM – this is how aircraft are supposed to trap….

  • Kurt Plummer

    The ability to ‘land like a robot’ goes back decades.

    ACLS or the Automated Carrier Landing System is vastly superior to the live body making a play for the three wire at 0D30 in the murk.

    When it works.

    When it doesn’t, things get a bit dicey as you get complacent waiting for the system to do it’s thing and the discovery that it isn’t just in time to dodge the spud locker and shoot a missed approach tends to raise your blood pressure in a hurry as you think about how long it’s been since -you- did this, for real.

    My understanding is the JPALS is better than ACLS because it doesn’t require a projected localizer beam (which can lose it’s alignment) to fly down, but rather treats the carrier as a differential GPS transmitter providing perfect six-axis (heel, roll, yaw, pitch, vertical and horizontal) 3D location data with something like 17cm error margins.

    This makes the autopilots decisions more closed-loop ‘expert’ in that it knows the math enough to ‘see’ where it is going, predictively, and so drive itself onboard rather than blindly riding the beam, trusting to the nature of the transmission to affect it’s approach behavior.

    Whether there are redundant alternatives that protect against spoofing or system failure (Lidar as a replacement for FLOLS makes sense, for clear weather at least, since again it gives you ultra-precise _positioning_ data and lets the autopilot simply fly a closed loop predictive approach based on it’s own perceptions of spatial positioning not beam angle) I don’t know.

    I know in the AAR (Automated Air To Air Refueling) testing they had an actual camera which helped the UCAV surrogate make the final play for the basket more accurate.

    Got a 90% rating on that, even with massive 10ft swings of the drogue. If they use similar technology to come aboard, it is likely that the UCLASS will have at least one backup mode inherent to a (low light capable) DAS/MAWS to rapidly stack video frames as angular data on sides vs. approach angle.

    This is not stereoscopy as we humans do it (six inch separated optical boresights being what they are) it but it is so fast that it can function in a similar manner using the speed of the camera frame update vs. the approach rate of the jet to create useful minutes of arc differentiation of rate change in judging an internal 3D approach through the INS rate sensors.

    Past this, would be something like a ‘Highway In Sky’ type manual flydown through a series of gated approach angle vectors as glideslope indicators with a remote hand controller similar to what they use already to steer the jet on-deck. This would let a qualified naval aviator fly the approach even if the drones onboard DAS as camera system had failed.

    Such would be a dicey business since you are effectively shooting an approach solely on a reversed perspective appearance of high/low/fast-slow from the LSO stand but if you have a decent capture on the drone position itself you might be able to generate a virtual display that would let you fly from a 3rd person perspective behind the jet, again using a carrier sensor to represent own-and-objective positions.

    Fail-operative redundancy thus comes down to ‘who’s lookin’ and what system goes down, when.

    Carrier GPS


    UCAV Visual Sensor (if any)

    UCAV Coupled Autopilot modes/INS

    JPALS Datalink

    Carrier UCAV Tracking Sensor (LiDAR or MMW, if any)

    Since you are looking at recovery or loss of a valuable LO airframe vs. risk to the deckpark and potential loss of flight ops if there is a crash, it stands to reason that there is a threshold beyond which you either send the jet to a landbase or put it in the water far enough out to make recovery by threat states unlikely.

    I’m sure that whatever passes for an AGI shadow these days will be recording all of the ELINT they can soak and that this will become hostile spoof as ‘cyber attack’ coming back the other way at some point.

    Which likely means that the first real step up in the nature of the platform as an Artifint driven system will not be ‘self targeting awareness’ but rather OFP X.xx as the autonomous ability to recognize and track a carrier, flying an overhead break pattern using solely onboard position sensing under EMCON, to maintain tight interval recovery sequencing.

    JPALS is important here too in that it was intended to be part of an ATC reporting network that controlled everything from marshal stack-up to maintenance reporting and that system would likely have to be in place regardless, to facilitate air handling prioritization of damaged or low fuel jets.

    Like it or not, we are dependent on data and to a lesser extent voice links to maintain tactical control and deconfliction in a high density air environment, even for manned aircraft, and this has been true for quite awhile.

  • Kurt Plummer

    I would like to add one other thing:


    From Greenert’s perspective, the value of the X-47B isn’t just that
    it’s cool technology. It’s a proto-prototype for a larger, heavily armed
    drone called the UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne
    Surveillance and Strike System) that will provide a long-range bomber
    capability that carrier-based aircraft currently flying, like the
    F/A-18E/F and F-35C, do not have.


    This is important since it is essentially a lie. However many pirouette maneuvers it does, the F/A-18E/F is not a fighter since it lacks the Ps to do the principle -intercept- (Remember that folks? As goes the intercept, so goes the fight?) management of the fight geometry, which is all supersonic at height in being what drives the BVR capability to put missiles in the other guys face, first.

    The F-35C certainly has the power to do this but is likely going to be Q as drag limited (since it’s concept of a ‘supersonic’ is Mach 1.14…) on that massive wing and certainly shotcount restricted in it’s look-shoot-look ability to gambit SSPK vs. pole length.

    As such, both these aircraft _are bombers_ in the most applicable sense.

    They have AAMs the same way an Avenger had a rear gun turret.

    The only thing that saves these aircraft in the modern A2A environment is likely going to be broadcast sharing of datalink tactical picture as a means to shoot long-burn AIM-120D with someone else’ target designation and midcourse updating using a variant of post hole tactics to stay out of sensor cone on the inbound threats.

    Having said that, the nature of air warfare has vastly changed with the arrival of miniature glide and boosted munitions like GBU-53B and AASM. Both of which have to have some ability to auto-acquire targets underneath a GPS coordinate footprint using self-classifying seeker recognition. There is no other alternative when the threat is anything up to 60nm off your nose.

    This is important for two reasons:

    1. You don’t have to approach the target to manually designate it with onboard sensor systems and WSO ID. Which means you don’t have to dedicate huge packages to enroute suppression of air defenses in getting that close.

    2. You can engage multiple aimpoints in the same target matrix -or- multiple targets at disparate locations, without having to worry so much about ordnance, frag settle and IP/SCAR cycling as general effects upon FUEL. Which means that you can expand the classes of targets which you hit on Day-1 to achieve shooter vs. command and control nullification of the primary IADS threat.

    If UCAVs are to be useful, they have to remain cheap as the equivalent of the MQ-9 Reaper with jet speed transit and reliable power around the boat. They do _not_ need to become ‘bombers’. Because miniature munitions and the ability to tool about the target area, sanitizing great wide nothings with spotlight mode sensor footprints (as DAS-like situational awareness and threat warning system may eventually be made to function like ARGUS/Gorgon Stare but will never designate targets from 20+nm like Sniper/EOTS) means that you can afford to have multiple coverage of exposed friendly as well as uncertain enemy positions in the Day-2+ environment.

    All because your manned assets are acting like SCARs to designate aimpoints and your tactical ground teams have ROVER to do the same once the UCAVs are released to their control.

    The original DARPA UDS/UOS (UCAV Demo and Operational System) decision points were all pointed towards a network SEAD mission which used AN/ALR-11 as a small precision direction finding suite to generate synthetic long baseline triangulation for either rapid set-on (multibearing strobelines into the sidelobes) jamming or ARM/IAM direct attack. As such, they were highly exposed themselves and considered semi-sacrificial which mean that they were also -small as cheap-.

    This is what the X-45A was before it became ‘J-UCAS’ under USAF asserted program leadership. The J-UCAS as X-45C was then cancelled because, get this, _it was too expensive_.

    What changed?

    Well, the X-45A had a 6,300lbst civil engine pushing a 12,000lb gross weight airframe. The X-45C had a 10,000lbst milspec engine driving a 36,000lb airframe. It also had XTRA conformal AESA radar and EOTS like onboard sensor systems.

    The USN was at least more honest when they stated that their UCAV-N desire was for a something closer to a CSA replacement mission for the S-3. Doing everything from buddy tanking to data relay and some ferret work with the possibility of eventual replacement for the E-2 and EA-6B.

    Which of course requires a -big- airframe (Viking grosses out at around 40,000lbs).

    But the E-2E and EA-18 have both succeeded the CSA mission requirements with the retirement without replacement of the Viking itself proving how ‘seriously’ the USN now takes the ASW, ASST and Tanking missions.

    The point I’m trying to make here is that UCAVs can and probably should remain simple mission range extenders as ‘auxilliary bomb pylons’ in the strike warfare role and as rapidly shiftable ISR overwatch in the COIN mission. Some money should be invested in their signature management but massive payload:range or system variables are not fiscally wise nor necessary so long as someone is along to hold their hands (or you attack prebriefed targets with satellite coordinates).

    If I was to make a direct comparison it would be to the A-4, not the A-6 and I would specifically envision a tactical model where the biggest weapons I would be carrying would be a pair of AGM-88E (1,650lbs) or AIM-120D (800lbs) as hounds before the hunters of F-35s which cannot carry the HARM internally and would have to sacrifice A2G munitions to load up another pair of AMRAAM.

    Best to risk only the least valuable asset using the ASQ-239 and APG-81 of the trailing jet to designate the munitions which are well out ahead on much shorter poles.

    Sequestration of budget funding and the need to pay for the new Reagan classes also need to be a part of the equation here.

    If the USN is serious about bringing unmanned aviation to their airpower capability set, they should not bloat the system spec in Gen-1 because the airframe will become hugely unaffordable. Literally.

    If they are just looking for a way to avoid competition with their manned systems by deliberately asking for what they do not intend to buy, then they should be honest and not waste billions with a B only to justify cancellation later. That’s fiduciary fraud of the taxpayer’s trust.

    In this, it is worth noting that the DARPA UDS->UOS program exit as decision point was originally to be in 2006. Which would have made it competitive with the F-35 SDD->Production Ramp as an alternative, low cost, system.

    The USAF got the DARPA program manager ‘transferred’ and took over the program in early 2001, just in time to cancel it as being too expensive while they fought the GWOT after 9/11. And now we are stuck with a 388 billion dollar monster JSF program for which there are NO manned alternatives to cheaply fill out the force structure.

    Keep very tight control over the UCLASS system cost setpoints as program purse strings gentlemen. Because it’s no longer a matter of core-aviator to unmanned jet preservation of ‘union jobs’. It’s now about whether you will have the decks to deploy with at all.

    • Spothannah@aol.com

      It appears to me that rate of technological advances has or soon will outstrip planning for future technology solutions. What seems like a likely technological advancement at some future date is actually (when that date arrives) antiquated and obsolete. How does prediction play into this scenario?

      • Lop_Eared_Galoot


        It is certainly true that development of new technological capabilities can be ‘utilitarian’ in response to existing means and methods of accomplishing a given mission (which is of course subject to obsolescence of the mission itself). Or ‘innovative’ in accomplishing a mission which has not yet been perceived as having utility in a military sense.

        UCAVs do what F-teens and even F-20/30 series jets do in 90% of combat flight: move from base to target area at 1G, wings level, Mach .65-.85 and 30-40,000ft altitudes, just like an airliner, for the same reasons: fuel efficiency and safety at height (‘air under wings’ = time to resolve problems, avoid other traffic and birds, plus prep for a worst case ejection).

        What UCAVs do that other jets don’t is threefold:

        A. Achieve better range.

        The original J-UCAS program had a requirement for 1,100nm and 2hrs on station, nearly twice that of the F-35. This is because jets which mix missions (fighter and strike) carry dead 10,000lbs of dead weight and aerodynamic drag that they do not have to. Namely half their engine length as afterburner ducting and a cockpit+airborne intercept radar which greatly ‘bulge’ the frontal area of the jet. In a world where the mission is one of finding targets that don’t agreeably show up when you do, range + loiter translates to more targets serviced, per sortie, rather than per airframe (where a manned airframe has to be replaced on-station, twice as often).

        B. Are more stealthy/have more weapons options.

        Lacking conventional Empennage as tails as well as the aforementioned inlet/canopy/hog’s-nose radar of a conventional fighter which trades stability margin in extreme maneuvering for vastly larger radar and optical signatures, the X-47B is much more stealthy, both optically, by infrared and at radar wavelengths.

        Of course the inverse also applies in the X-47 is explicitly unable to ‘dogfight’ or evade surface to air missile fire. Which means it has to rely ‘more on the bullet than the rifle’, Standoff and precision rather than direct delivery of weapons. Thus it has been seen with AGM-88 HARM in it’s weapons bays. This is something no other LO platform can manage, not the F-22, not the F-35, not even the B-2. It is equally adroit at carrying GBU-39 which the Raptor and Lightning struggle with. If you are more stealthy, by configuration, you are not as worried about exposure to threat fires during the **extended** times of flight that modern U.S. ballistic/glide IAMs require to reach a target. GBU-31/32 are good to between 10-12nm which outranges only the most basic (SA-2/3/6/8/11) of heavy SAM platforms. GBU-39 is good to anything up to 57nm. But the key variable is that they are subsonic, 200-250knot, ingress weapons which means that they are in the air a LONG time before the threat goes down. If it goes down. Which is not assured as both terminal defense escorts (SA-15/19/22) and increasingly effective APS systems may well render subsonic munitions undeliverable as DEAD (Destruction Of Enemy AIr Defenses) kill effectors. HARM, which runs at anywhere from Mach 3.5 at low level to Mach 5+ at high, is not so limited. Bullet makes Rifle, if the Rifle has the magazine for it.

        3. Minimum Training.

        This is where I think the real ‘next admission of inferiority’ on the part of the air power services must be made. UCAVs as Armed UAVs are already showing they can-do the conventional battlefield mission set, far better, due to loiter in the kill box. Which means you don’t have to cripple a nation’s industrial (Serbia) as civilian (Iraq/AfG) infrastructure by bombing static targets. You can hit the tanks, technicals and the like which form the -actual- combatant capacity of the enemy. Because they have no window of rear area maneuver when airpower is not present.

        More importantly, though, what you fly in combat tends to come out of the backside of the ops accounts as training and readiness dollars. Deploying units get plussed up flight hours. Everyone else suffer desk-flight syndrome as home station hours get chopped to keep the deployed forces in the combat theater fully stocked with spares and gas.

        Where this is NOT going to change as we go into at least a decade of severe Sequestration of funds to pay down our massive debt, we cannot afford the perishability of human combat skills. Pilots who don’t fly for 2-3 days can feel a noticeable diminishment in the ‘edge’ of hand eye coordination and G-soak endurance when they go back. Do this for a week and you lose maybe 25% of your abilities. Do it for a month and you are lucky if you have 25% of your abilities /left/. Simulators and centrifuges cannot but approximate this and they have their own dollars-per-hour costs.

        OTOH, a UCAV has the ability to take a tactical tape as a flight program and ‘by quarterly updates’ keep the entire fleet equally competent. What is more is that a UCAV can have it’s wings flown off at one of the big ranges in the Southwest or up in Alaska -developing- those tactics and so you don’t really lose innovation in the way airpower is employed so much as take the next step in integrating an Edwards AFB + Nellis AFB type ‘development meets fighter weapons school’ curriculum which greatly supports technical mod improvements in clearing for combat use key ‘robot’ mission systems like communications security/bandwidth and sensor modes/munitions using highly complex exercises involving 60-100 aircraft. Those jets being still significantly less expensive to run all day, every day, 365 days a year, than the other 1,200 or so aircraft in the inventory which are kept in ramp-ready status but flown only perhaps 1 time per month to validate maintenance checks.

        i.e. UCAV forces don’t complain and/or quit for the airlines when training funds dry up.

        Having said all this, UCAVs are limited because they presently do not constitute a common force for purchasing economics (despite the fact that the F-4 Phantom could and was flown, as a carrier capable jet, from USAF land bases, virtually unmodified…). And increasingly, even the UCAV may not have the reach to get into Anti-Access/Area Denied zones without risking the even more monumentally expensive basing asset to which it is tied. Be that nukes falling on Taegu or a Ford class Carrier at the bottom of the Formosa strait.

        For that level of threat, the next escalation step is most assuredly up a hypersonic option which can come from bases some 4-5,000 miles out on the counterstrike lane instead of 700-1,100. Only to drop weapons which are then ‘skipped’, like stones over water, another 500+ more. I am serious when I say that a Mach 10-12 platform has the ability to strike from half a time zone away.

        The difference of course being that a hypersonic asset is really only defendable against using space borne or perhaps HAEUAV mounted weapons which deliver directed energy strikes. Thus you don’t have to split (say) a carrier air wing into SEAD/DEAD, A2A and Strike components. Rather -everything- goes into lofting strike weapons which, as they exit the airframe, are moving at anything up to 6,000mph and so don’t need to worry about ‘standoff’.

        The rifle is now (going the speed of) the bullet.

        How we would apply these capabilities, in terms of theater operational needs is not altogether important. They would certainly inspire new methods as required countermeasure investment which is half of what fighting an opponent with your wallet rather than your spear is about.

        But equally important is what they mean in a world where shrinking U.S. influence and general aversion to more ‘global wars on terror’ proxy coalitions is that we will have to be able to bomb from increasingly distant points (Sigonella, Diego, Guam, Eilsen) as remaining base-in accessibility to whole regions is denied through lease renewal denial elsewhere.

        Such is actually **a good thing** because it means that paying for foreign garrisoning as Status Of Forces agreements is no longer an issue. And even if it means the loss of cheap manufactured goods from Korea, Taiwan and Japan, it also means we can pull back and reinvest, locally, in home industry. Industry which has been allowed to wander offshore because of FALSE beliefs in the profitability of biotech and robots as ‘the next big revolution’ in American profit margin as much as science.

        American stability at home is based on the lowest common denominator by which large segments of the population can remain producers of exportable goods rather than consumers in a service driven market. In this I would quote Eisenhower:

        “The government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. … (Leading to a) …. Technocratic state” where military requirements and purchasing have usurped the natural processes of R&D.

        We risk swinging the other way now because Big Business has become so ruthless in it’s unsupported Darwinianism that they have no national loyalties.

        But the fact remains that if you can dedicate funds to very high end enablers (hypersonic strike) of very prosaic and established (carrier battlegroups), extending the latter’s survivability with the massive standoff of the former; you have the ability to ALSO shift resources towards more typically civilian mitigating technology as socio-cultural stress relief outcomes. As with ‘free’ electricty (25 year mortgage X12 months at 200 dollars per month in utility bills = 60,000 dollars of winnable currency) inherent to a green economy.

        i.e. We can do a lot more to buy-in our people than simply justifying nationalist mercantilism as the opposite to liberal Wimbledon Effect as the balance of militarism vs. debt fear.

        With, by far and away, the largest chunk of unallocated budget, year after year, the Military is going to take the hit, regardless. The only alternative being the chock-a-block abandonment of socialist welfare for the retireds and disableds which would lead to universal increases in crime and reductions in consumer spending, further crippling the U.S. economic indexes.

        UCAVs plus H-PGS is a way forward that guts current conventional force structures and invents tactics around the size and location as well as perceived threat need of the high tech followon.

  • cam e

    Send it over Iran. I don’t think they have this one.

  • Dennis The Menance

    AMAZING..Sounds Good To Me!
    I just want a Reote Controlled Lawn Mower for Less than $300 Please

  • Bob the kitten

    Just another expensive big boy play toy to spend money on for our government.
    Like we we don’t have enough debt already and here goes more politician hip pocket money for these fools to spend on more elections. What a joke we’ve become !

  • http://www.facebook.com/east53rdst Thomas M. Uzzell

    NOT that EASY ! V1 USS Coral Seas 1977-78 !