The Navy is considering a “range of options” for its X-47B unmanned aircraft now that the program has completed an aerial refueling demonstration, the last of its planned flight tests, a service official said April 23.
Options under review include adding a mission sensor, such as a video camera, radar or signals intelligence payload, and disseminating sensor information collected during flight tests, said Capt. Beau Duarte, the Navy’s program manager for unmanned carrier aviation. Other possibilities include looking at aircraft carrier “deck handling solutions,” integrating the X-47B with the new carrier-based Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (JPALS), or simply retiring the program’s two air vehicles and sending them to museums.
“We’re looking at a wide range of activities, ranging from museums to further potential operations either on the ground or in flight,” Duarte told reporters. “But it’s got to be cost effective,” and it cannot give X-47B prime contractor Northrop Grumman [NOC] an unfair advantage in the upcoming competition for the Navy’s future Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system.
The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program might need more funding to continue, depending on which option is ultimately selected, Duarte said. While the program has spent $1.47 billion since it awarded its first contract to Northrop Grumman in 2007, it has only a “little bit left” from its most recent allocation of $35 million for fiscal year 2015.
On April 22, the X-47B became the first unmanned aircraft to be refueled in flight by another aircraft. During the demonstration, which occurred over the Chesapeake Bay, the tailless X-47B took off from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., maneuvered behind an Omega K-707 tanker and extended a fixed probe to receive 4,100 pounds of JP-8 fuel from the tanker’s basket-like drogue. The X-47B then returned to the naval base.
The test “helps solidify the concept that future unmanned aircraft can perform standard missions like aerial refueling and operate seamlessly with manned aircraft as part of the carrier air wing,” Duarte said.
The demonstration completed the X-47B’s final original objective. The program’s earlier accomplishments include becoming the first-ever unmanned aircraft to catapult launch from a carrier, and the first-ever unmanned aircraft to complete an arrested landing on a carrier.
Lessons learned from UCAS-D are supposed to feed into UCLASS, a ruggedized, operational system. But UCLASS was put on hold last year so the Pentagon could conduct an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance “portfolio review.” That review might wrap up this summer.