The Navy plans to conclude flight tests this spring of the X-47B unmanned plane built to demonstrate aircraft carrier operations as it moves toward a follow-on system planned to be operational in the early 2020s, senior officers said Wednesday.

The Navy's X-47B unmanned aircraft demonstrator (UCAS) designed for carrier operations and the precursor to UCLASS. Photo: U.S. Navy
The Navy’s X-47B unmanned aircraft demonstrator (UCAS) designed for carrier operations and the precursor to UCLASS. Photo: U.S. Navy

In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on airpower, Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, the principal military deputy for the Navy’s top acquisition official, and Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, the director of air warfare, said the final testing will involve autonomous aerial refueling.

The X-47B program, also known as the Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D), is funded at $36 million for testing in fiscal 2015, but the Navy has not requested funding for fiscal 2016, which begins Oct. 1.

The Navy and Pentagon are still working through the requirements for the follow-on Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program.

“The X-47B has met demonstration objectives and reduced technical risk by transferring lessons learned to the UCLASS program,” their testimony said. “The X-47B demonstrators have paved the way for the proficient introduction of a sea-based unmanned aircraft system by digitizing the carrier controlled environment, achieving precision landing navigation performance, demonstrating a deck handling solution, and refining the concept of operations.”

With the final refueling testing over the next few months, the X-47B demonstration “will come to a successful close,” they said.

The Navy made history in 2013 when the X-47B became the first unmanned air vehicle to launch off the carrier’s catapult and perform an arresting gear landing. The Navy has since tested the X-plane with other, manned aircraft to get a feel for air wing integration and operations.

After the initial carrier takeoff and landing tests, the Navy initially planned to mothball the two X-47Bs it developed with lead contractor Northrop Grumman [NOC] and focus on UCLASS. But the Navy secured additional funding to keep flying the X-47Bs for additional learning, in part at the urging of Congress.

The Navy’s planned release last summer of the final request for proposals for UCLASS has been delayed indefinitely over a requirements debate that his since reached the highest levels of the Pentagon.

Boeing [BA], General AtomicsLockheed Martin [LMT] and Northrop Grumman are the four companies competing for UCLASS, and are currently under design and early development contracts with Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).