Standing before the ominous-looking scale mockup of Northrop Grumman’s X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System, the Navy’s top science and technology official proclaimed the service’s commitment to unmanned air vehicles and their application for future naval combat.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition Dolores Etter was decidedly cool in her support the UCAS, describing in a very legalistic way as a “demonstration” and “prototype” program and an “important” one ... among many, that is.
Northrop Grumman beat out the competition from Boeing last week to build a UCAS demonstrator that will help the Navy figure out how such a combat drone could integrate itself into the carrier air wing.
“There are lots of questions we have to answer as to how this system is going to be able to do the carrier operations,” Etter said.
This has got to be a blow to hard-core UCAV advocates who make a compelling argument that Navy UCAVs need to be integrated onto the CAG yesterday. The Navy’s UCAS program manager, Rear Adm. Tim Heely, outlined the profiles the X-47B is scheduled to fly, including “approaching a carrier, landing on a carrier, taking off on the carrier, multiple approaches – I think it’s around 40 or 30 – approaches and integrating in the air above the carrier and on the carrier. Very critical parts of naval aviation.”
Heely did say aerial refueling will be nixed from the test program, however. But Northrop officials argue that part of testing won’t be tough to surmount.
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments argued last month the Navy is dragging its feet on UCAS for cultural reasons – human aviators don’t want to share the decks with their robot counterparts. And perhaps Etter’s leukwarm embrace of the drone standing behind her was an indication of that.
CSBA argued X-47B-like drones would give the Navy nearly unlimited persistence over a target and would allow carrier to launch strikes so far from their target that a ship could send a sortie of drones to North Korea, for example, as it is leaving port in Pearl Harbor.
But the Navy’s top UAV official argued in a private interview with Defense Tech that drones such as the X-47B and the MQ-8B Fire Scout could overcome the cultural impediments by take boring jobs such as communications relay and aerial ship inspection missions away from human pilots so that flesh-an-bone aviators can concentrate on more important ones like strike and anti-ship missions.
Clearly, however, yesterday’s address at the AUVSI flight demo with three white-uniform clad Naval officers and their civilian boss standing before this robotic giant demonstrated the beginnings of a major shift in warfare … and in naval aviation culture.
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