The command of the US Navy is actively engaged in the implementation of the program for the development of promising carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicles, which in the future will perform many tasks. In particular, according to the preliminary requirements of the military, such drones will have to be able to take off and land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, conduct reconnaissance, reconnaissance and observation, deliver high-precision strikes at enemy targets under cover of the air defense system, and even refuel in the air and refuel others unmanned and manned aircraft. The program of the X-47B technology demonstrator UCAS-D launched the program of promising deck drones.
Work on the creation of the deck drone for the US Navy began in the US in the middle of the year 2000. The development of devices involved then two companies - Boeing, who presented in 2002, the UAV X-45, and Northrop Grumman, who created the X-47A Pegasus. Subsequently, the command of the Navy signed a contract with Northrop Grumman for the creation of a device - a technology demonstrator, which received the designation X-47B UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator).
Tested in full
The X-47B is equipped with a folding wing and two internal bomb compartments for armament with a total weight of up to two tons. The drone is able to reach speeds of up to 1035 kilometers per hour and fly over a distance of more than four thousand kilometers. Now the device is equipped only with a control and information exchange system and the equipment necessary for maneuvering on the loaded deck of an aircraft carrier. Additional combat systems on the drone is not yet and do not even plan to install. To date, the US Navy has spent a billion dollars on the X-47B 1,4 project. The first flight of the demonstrator of the UAV deck took place on February 4 2011, he was postponed for two years.
“The UAV is planned to be used for reconnaissance, reconnaissance, observation and high-precision strikes against ground targets”
Shortly thereafter, preparations began for conducting its tests on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Last November, Northrop Grumman, in conjunction with experts from the US Navy, tested a deck drone control system called the Control Display Unit (CDU). It fully controls the engine and X-47B steering gear while driving on the ship's deck. Later, the drone was delivered to the aircraft carrier "Harry Truman", which tested the ability of the drone to maneuver on the flight deck. These tests ended in December of 2012. Last November, the X-47B also took off for the first time with a catapult at a land test site.
In the spring of 2013, the X-47B was taken to the deck of the aircraft carrier George Bush. 14 May this year for the first time, the drone made an ejection takeoff from an aircraft carrier. At the time of launch of the aircraft carrier was off the coast of Virginia. According to the US Navy Program Manager Carl Johnson, this event was the second most important stories fleet after the first take-off of a manned aircraft from the deck of an aircraft carrier in 1915. In total, the X-47B after taking off from an aircraft carrier was in the air for 65 minutes. During this time, the testers performed several low overhead flights and approaches.
The tests ended with the landing of a drone at the airfield of the US Navy base "Patuxent River" in Maryland 278 kilometers from the take-off site. During the flight, the BLA successfully completed several test tasks at once. First, the developers were convinced of the ability of the X-47B to fly and maneuver in controlled airspace around the aircraft carrier. Secondly, the possibility of transferring control of a drone from an operator aboard the “George Bush” to an operator at the Patuxent River airbase was tested. Finally, the ability of the device to interact with the onboard systems of the aircraft carrier has been tested.
The first landing on the X-47B deck was performed on July 10 on the “George Bush” aircraft carrier off the coast of Virginia. According to the test program, the X-47B was supposed to make three takeoffs and three landings from the deck of an aircraft carrier, but the drone was only able to sit down twice and take off three times from the ship. When approaching the third and last landing, the UAV revealed a malfunction in the navigation system and automatically went to the previously scheduled reserve airfield on the island of Wallops. There the unit landed without incident.
Later, the US Navy and the American company Northrop Grumman conducted a new test of the X-47B UCAS-D by landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier George Bush. During the tests, the drone took off from the airfield on the basis of the US Navy "Patuxent River". During the approach, the device detected a malfunction and automatically returned to the Patuxent River base. No further attempts were made to land the X-47B on deck. With this, the X-47 development program was planned to be completed, but the military considered it necessary to extend the tests of the drone until the end of the 2013 year in order to get a more complete picture of the capabilities of this class of devices.
What do the naval forces want to get
In the process of implementing the project X-47B, the US Navy is engaged in the formation of requirements for promising carrier-based drone drones, the first of which is expected to be put into service as early as 2019 – 2021. A formal tender for the development of an unmanned vehicle was announced in March of 2010. According to the published requirements of the Navy, deck drones should be able to spend at least 11 – 14 hours in the air with a payload in the form of various sensors, weapons or fuel to refuel other vehicles in the air. Drones should use various stealth technologies. At the same time special requests to the layout is not presented.
Prospective devices are planned to be used primarily for reconnaissance, reconnaissance and observation, as well as for delivering high-precision strikes against ground targets. However, their capabilities must be expandable due to the modularity of the design. So, if necessary, drones can be supplemented by electronic warfare, signal relay systems or special reconnaissance equipment. In March, the United States Navy 2013 announced that it was necessary to use already existing launch, landing, control and information exchange technologies in new UAVs. Winner of the competition to create a drone will be announced before the 2016 year.
It is still difficult to say exactly what the promising vehicles will be - Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, participating in the US Navy tender, do not disclose details about their projects. Meanwhile, the X-47B itself is made according to the "flying wing" scheme using stealth technologies. It is equipped with a Pratt & Whitney F100-220U jet engine without afterburner, capable of developing thrust up to 79,1 kilonewtons. The wingspan of the drone is 18,93 meters, the length is 11,63 meters, and the height is 3,1 meters. For comparison: similar parameters of the carrier-based fighter F / A-18E / F Super Hornet are 13,62, 18,31 and 4,88 meters, respectively.
In the next few months, X-47B will have to take part in several more trials.
In general, the X-47B test program is coming to an end. In 2014, the US Navy will analyze all the data obtained as a result of the UCAS-D project and on their basis will form the final list of requirements for promising deck-based UAVs. Since 2007, Northrop Grumman has built a total of two flight prototypes of the X-47B; there are no plans to order additional such drones from the Navy. At the end of the tests, the existing devices will be transferred to the museum aviation.
In 2014, the US Navy command intends to conclude contracts for the development of carrier-based UAVs with all four bidders, however, only one of them will sign an agreement on the manufacture and supply of vehicles. Northrop Grumman plans to offer the American military UAVs based on X-47B, Boeing-based Phantom Ray, Lockheed Martin - Sea Ghost, and General Atomics - Sea Avenger (a continuation of the Predator family already created: M / RQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1C Gray Eagle). Of all the devices listed above, only X-47B and Phantom Ray are still involved in flight tests.
However, the plans of the US military may change somewhat. In particular, the US Navy may postpone the promulgation of requirements for new deck-based unmanned aerial vehicles and the announcement of a tender for their development. The reason for this was the disagreement between the command of the aviation systems of the US Navy and the Pentagon regarding the tasks that the new vehicles must perform. Previously, the preliminary requirements for drones were supposed to be released in mid-December 2013-th, and the final - in the second quarter of the 2014 of the fiscal year (the first quarter of 2014-th).
According to the Navy, all requirements for carrier-based drone drills that the military have already prepared will not change: new UAVs must be built with a wide application of stealth technologies, carry weapons for delivering high-precision strikes at enemy targets, various sensors for reconnaissance, reconnaissance and surveillance, radio electronic systems wrestling and equipment for air refueling, as well as works to refuel other aircraft.
The Pentagon also states that they have not yet decided on the final range of tasks that the new unmanned vehicle will perform. Thus, the department is doubtful that at this stage the balance between the UAV’s flight range, its inconspicuous nature and the ability to carry weapons and payloads in the form of sensors and various systems is correctly kept. The US Department of Defense is considering the possibility of developing an exclusively reconnaissance version of the deck drone that does not need to break through the enemy’s air defense systems.
The current schedule provides for the signing of a contract for the development of carrier-based UAVs in the framework of the UCLASS project in the fourth quarter of 2014 (the first quarter of 2015 in the fiscal year beginning on October 1 of 2014). At the same time, the initial operational readiness of new UAVs is planned to be announced in 2019 – 2021. The deadlines for adopting the weapons into service have not yet been definitively determined, according to the statement of the military, in many respects they will depend on the speed at which technology is developed and tests conducted.
In the coming 30 years, the US military intends to increase the number of unmanned aerial vehicles in service with the country four times - up to 26 thousands of units. This will be done not only through the production of the drones themselves, but also through the conversion of existing aircraft into unmanned versions (for example, the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft), as well as the development of optional manned combat aircraft. Every year the number of new technologies increases, allowing to solve problems with which a person is no longer able to cope. And it may well be that in the distant future deck drones will take off already from crewless aircraft carriers.
Under the power of robots
The serious commitment of the US military to the development of unmanned aircraft systems and ground-based robotic systems, meanwhile, raises concerns among various human rights organizations. Thus, the organization Human Rights Watch, with the support of the Harvard Law School last year, published an 50-page report on the dangers of using fully autonomous (robotic) weapons. The report's authors believe that combat robots will not be able to distinguish civilians from military ones, which means that the international rules of engagement will be seriously violated.
After a series of studies, HRW concluded that robots are mechanisms equipped with the ability to perceive the world around us and act in accordance with the program. All of them, to one degree or another, have autonomy, that is, they are capable of performing any actions without human intervention. The degree of autonomy of the drones will vary considerably depending on the model. Conventionally, robots can be divided into three categories: "man in the control system" (human in the loop), "man in the control system" (human on the loop) and "man out of the control system" (human out of the loop).
The first category implies that a certain unmanned vehicle can independently detect and select targets, however, the decision to destroy them is taken only by a human operator. The second category includes systems that are able to independently detect and select targets, as well as make decisions about their destruction, but the human operator acting as an observer can intervene in this chain at any time. Finally, in the third category, HRW included robots capable of detecting, selecting and destroying targets without human intervention at all.
The report, which was called Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots (literally “Losing Humanity: Arguments Against Killer Robots”), in particular, states that cars are devoid of compassion and are not responsible for the damage. On the one hand, as the report says, the presence of combat robots will help save the lives of their own servicemen. On the other hand, the use of robots instead of humans can ease the moral responsibility for the outbreak of military conflicts.
In order to somehow avoid the violation of human rights and the “unpunished” actions of robots, they need constant monitoring by the person. However, the report notes that fully autonomous combat vehicles have not yet been developed, and all the more have not been put into service. According to experts, who refer to the authors of the document, such weapons may appear in the next 20 – 30 years. The first such technologies are expected to be presented by the USA, Israel, South Korea, China, Germany, Great Britain and Russia.