Military Photo: Robotic Bombers Flying Off Carriers

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Artist Concept of a X-47B landing on a carrier
Posted: 02/01/2005

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The U.S. Navy has invested over a billion dollars, so far, in developing combat UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that can operate from aircraft carriers, and replace some of the manned aircraft on carriers. Final design and construction of the full size X45C combat UAV has begun, and these will make their first flights in 2007, or earlier. The smaller X45A has now spent two years doing flight tests and serving as a test bed for the flight control software. The X45A is intended just for development. The navy is sharing, with the air force, the development effort for flight control software development, and other new technology. However, the navy is developing carrier landing software alone. This will be one of the most technically difficult aspxects of the project. Landing on a carrier is very difficult, especially at night and in bad weather. Carrier landing software has already been tested, but in manned aircraft, with pilots ready to take over at any moment. So far, these tests have been successful, but the acid test will be a X45 actually landing on a carrier, without a human on board as a backup.

The X45A has passed tests with formation flying, and dropping a JDAM (actually the new 250 pound SDB version). The X45C will carry eight SDB (small diameter bombs), or up to 4500 pounds of other JDAMs. The X45C will undergo several years of development and eventually enter service before the end of the decade. The X-45C will weigh 19 tons, have a 2.2 ton payload and be 39 feet long (with a 49 foot wingspan.) The X-45A is 27 feet long, has a wingspan of 34 feet and has a payload of 1.2 tons. The X-45C will be able to hit targets 2,300 kilometers away and be used for bombing and reconnaissance missions. Each X-45C will probably cost about $30 million, depending on how extensive, and expensive, its electronic equipment will be.

Meanwhile, a second combat UAV, the X47B, is also under development, for another billion dollars, as a backup. The X47B is a smaller aircraft, at 15 tons, 36 feet long and with a wingspan of 47 feet. It will have a two ton payload and be able to stay in the air for twelve hours. It will probably end up costing the same as the X45C, if it is selected as the combat UAV that will enter service. The Department of Defense wants the air force and navy to agree on a single design, although the navy version will need stronger landing gear and better corrosion protection (from the salt water exposure) for carrier operations. Because of these special needs, the navy and air force don�t like the �joint aircraft� concept. But the Department of Defense is bearing down pretty hard.

There are other problems with the combat UAVs, and these concern just how they will be used. Currently, the thinking is that they will be sort of like cruise missiles that return, and will be most useful for reconnaissance and dangerous missions like taking out enemy air defenses. But many UAV engineers, and some fighter pilots, believe that combat UAVs could revolutionize air warfare. Combat UAVs can perform maneuvers that a manned aircraft cannot (because there are limits to the g-forces a human body can tolerate.) In theory, software and sensors would make a combat UAV much quicker to sort out a combat situation, and make the right move. For the moment, this aspxect of UAV development is officially off the table. But once combat UAVs start operating, and that will be by the end of the decade, there will be much pressure to let combat UAVs rule the skies, in addition to scouting and bombing.



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