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We focused on naval aviation a lot last week, from the news about the U.S. Navy launching its X-47B stealth drone off an aircraft carrier to talking about China and India's commissioning of brand new carrier-borne fighter squadrons.
To wrap things up, we thought we'd show you (above) what's likely China's major training facility for its new carrier-aviation force.
As you can see in Google Maps image above, the airfield (located about 300-miles from Qingdao, the homeport of China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning) is freshly built and the northern end of the runway features a fake carrier flight deck that appears to be used to practice carrier landings (there are clear skid marks on the landing area). The southern end of the runway features two "ski-jump" ramps that are likely used by pilots to rehearse taking off from Liaoning's bow-mounted ramp. (Notice how only one of these ramps is complete in the imagery above while the southernmost ramp appears is shown being built an older satellite image of the base.)
As OSIMINT notes, the field has 24 fighter-sized aircraft shelters, indicating that China's first carrier aviation units will be equipped with 24 J-15 carrier fighter jets.
This is likely the location where some of China's reportedly best pilots will learn the skills and develop the doctrine that allows them to master the art of taking off, landing and flying combat missions from a tiny airfield that's bobbing in the sea. Once this initial group of pilots has this down, it will teach future generations of Chinese naval fighter pilots
And you thought this week's news about the Navy's fancy stealth drone was good. Not to be outdone by the sea service, the Army this week revealed that it's looking to develop autonomous robo-backhoes and robot versions the military's famous armored trucks, known as MRAPs.
That's right, the Army wants to have robot trucks prowling battlefields for hidden explosives, finding and disabling or destroying the devices before they can harm people, according to this May 3 request for information that was spotted by a flying Blackberry with a drinking problem.
I have to say, this mission fits many people's job description for drones perfectly: dirty, dull and dangerous. If ever there was a dirty, dull and dangerous job for a drone, it's driving slowly down war-torn roads or paths while hunting for something buried in dirt or debris that could blow a person to smithereens.
So, the Army is interested in talking to contractors who can come up with kits allowing them to convert some of its High Mobility Engineer Excavators (backhoes on steroids, they're armored and can drive way faster than their civilian counterparts) and RG-31 MRAPs into remote-controlled bomb finders -- officially dubbed the Route Clearance and Interrogation System (RCIS).
Click here to see why they want these things to be unmanned.
Specifically, the kits must allow the vehicles to be operated by a soldier in another vehicle or for them to automatically follow a "pathfinder" vehicle or be programmed to drive along a preplanned route using GPS coordinates. However, the trucks must maintain their ability to be driven by a human the old fashioned way.
The Army envisions the trucks operating in nearly every environment, from urban rubble to open desert. The RCIS "will operate in terrain varying from open rolling to complex terrain; in confined areas; with mobility on primary and secondary roads and trails, and during limited cross-country movements," reads the RfI. "Operations will take place during daylight and during night, in limited visibility, and in inclement weather."
The two vehicles that comprise the RCIS system will have tools that allow for slightly different, complimentary missions. The backhoe will allow troops to remotely dig up, identify, and "neutralize" deeply buried explosives "in confined/urban areas" and prevent enemies from planting bombs in routes that have already been cleared by U.S. troops, according to the document.
The robo-MRAP will allow the troops to find and "neutralize" bombs with equipment such as "an explosive hazard roller, debris blower, electronic countermeasures device, infrared neutralizing device [to disable laser tripwires], and trip/command wire detonating device."
The trucks will be equipped with a variety of cameras and diagnostic systems allowing the operator to monitor its progress, the world around the vehicle and its health as if he or she were sitting behind the wheel, according to the RfI. Still, the beasts should be able to automatically recognize and warn the operator to the presence of any vehicle the size of a "Toyota Tacoma" pickup truck or larger and any people "standing upright wearing an Army Combat Uniform" who happen to be in front of or around the vehicles. (I guess you're out of luck if you're stranded in a Mini Cooper that's in the path of one of these things.)
These are hardly the U.S. military's first ground-based drones. The military has fielded thousands of small bomb-disposal robots, and the Army has tested a six-wheeled robot-jeep that serves as a pack mule in Afghanistan.
That's nothing compared to Israel, which has wholeheartedly embraced ground robots to conduct dull, dirty, and dangerous missions for at least a decade. The Israel Defense Force has used robot bulldozers since late 2003 to "knock down buildings, flatten olive groves and clear paths for advancing soldiers," according to this BBC News article. Then there's what might be the world's first killer ground robot, the IDF's Guardium.
As China commissioned its first-ever aircraft carrier aviation unit, Asia's other rising power, India, gave its carrier aviators a serious equipment upgrade with the introduction of 16 brand-new Russian-made MiG-29K and four MiG-29KUB carrier-borne fighters earlier this week.
India has operated old British aircraft carriers for decades. Right now it flies aging Sea Harrier jump jets from INS Viraat, formerly the Royal Navy carrier Hermes. These Sea Harriers are subsonic attack planes with limited payloads operating from a carrier that was built in the 1950s.
The supersonic MiG-29K is an updated, naval version of the Soviet Union's 1980s-vintage MiG-29, which was designed to counter U.S. Air Force F-15s and F-16s in the skies over Europe should the Cold War ever turn hot. The planes are way faster than the 1980s-vintage Sea Harriers and can carry more weapons capable of shooting down enemy planes and hitting enemy ships.
The Indian navy's new MiGs are going to be flown off of India's newest carrier, the former Soviet navy "aircraft-carrying cruiser" Admiral Gorshkov. That vessel has been massively refurbished at a Russian shipyard into the soon-to-be delivered INS Vikramaditya, a full-on carrier that, after much work, looks remarkably similar to China's first carrier, the Liaoning -- herself an old Soviet carrier. (Vikramaditya is supposed to be delivered to the Indian navy sometime this year.)
(China is also reportedly building at least two aircraft carriers of its own, set to enter service in the next decade.)
India will get a second squadron's worth of MiG-29Ks to fly off its first locally made carrier, the INS Vikrant, which is slated for delivery in 2015. (Click here to see great images of her under construction and get a primer on the delays that have troubled India's carrier program.)
So yeah, China isn't the only Asian nation that's building up its carrier force.
And keep in mind that India has one distinct advantage over China when it comes to carrier operations: it has been operating fighter jets from aircraft carriers for more than 50 years. It can take decades to master the art of flying fast jets off of the relatively tiny, floating airfields. Still MiG-29s are much bigger airplanes than the Sea Harriers and they can't just land vertically on a flight deck, as a Harrier can. This means that Indian navy pilots will have to relearn one of the toughest skills in aviation; landing on a pitching, rolling flight-deck and snagging an arrestor cable to come to a stop in a couple of hundred feet.
The same day that the U.S. Navy's X-47B stealth drone took off from an aircraft carrier, photos emerged on Chinese Internet forums that seemingly confirm that China is developing a stealthy unmanned jet, dubbed the Li Jian or Sharp Sword.
These jets are meant to replace the current crop of slow, low-flying, propeller-driven UAVs that military planners assume will be highly vulnerable in a modern conflict where one nation doesn't have absolute control over airspace.
For example, the U.S. Navy envisions these planes doing everything from aerial refueling missions to penetrating advanced air defenses to perform strike and surveillance sorties.
The only stealth drone designs we saw coming out of China were subscale models that basically amounted to remote-control airplanes. It appears that we can now add stealth drones to the military technology that China is developing to catch up with the West.
Hat tip to Alert 5.
History was made this morning when the U.S. Navy's stealthy X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator (UCAS-D) drone became the first unmanned stealth jet to take off from an aircraft carrier's catapults.
The jet launched off the USS George H.W. Bush in the Atlantic Ocean at 11:18 this morning and landed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland at 12:24 p.m., according to Navy public affairs tweets:
(To be fair, The Wall Street Journal's Julian Barnes may have beat the Navy in announcing the flight on Twitter)
The plane was supposed to conduct several simulated carrier landing approaches before flying inland and accross the Chesapeak Bay to Patuxent River, according to this Navy press release.
The plane followed taxiid onto one of the ship's bow catapults and then lauched into the air where it was controlled by an operator aboard the ship, as the jet made its way closer to shore, control was passed to an operator stationed at Patuxent River who controlled the jet on its flight home through mainland airspace.
Remember, the X-47B is meant to prove that a fighter-size stealth jet can operated from the crowded deck of an aircraft carrier. The Northrop Grumman-made drone is meant to test technology that will allow unmanned stealth jets capable of performing spy and strike missions to safely taxi on a flight deck and execute missions autonomously -- with a human supervising them but not flying them, even as the plane makes carrier landings, one of the toughest feats in aviation. (Click here to read about the technology the Navy will use for this.)
The X-47B program is set to continue until 2015, paving the way for the Navy's Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike program, which aims to have a fleet of stealth unmanned spy and strike jets operating from carriers by the start of the next decade.
Stealthy, unmanned jets capable of operating from carriers and doing everything from aerial refueling to spy and strike missions will play a role in the Navy's strategy for dealing with the great distances involved in operations in the Pacific region. Such craft could take off from a carrier far aways from an enemy's shores -- and hopefully out of the range of anti-ship missiles -- refuel each other and penetrate an enemy's advanced air defenses to perform strike or spy missions.
The U.S. isn't the only nation developing such UAVs. Britain, France, Russia and possibly China are also working stealthy, jet powered drones capable of performing combat missions in the face of modern air defenses.
Click here to read more about the X-47B.
Here's some Monday news: China has apparently commissioned its first aircraft carrier-based aviation unit.
We've known for years that a small cadre of Chinese pilots has been practicing landings and takeoffs on landlocked mock-ups of an aircraft carrier flight deck. Last fall, these pilots conducted their first-ever carrier flight operations when they took off and landed aboard China's first carrier, the Liaoning.
It appears these pilots are set to start training the next crop of Chinese naval aviators, according to a report from Xinhua that came out over the weekend.
The forming of the force, approved by the Central Military Commission (CMC), demonstrates that the development of China's aircraft carriers has entered a new phase, the sources said.
The force comprises carrier-borne fighter jets, jet trainers and ship-borne helicopters that operate anti-submarine, rescue and vigilance tasks.
Pilots of this unit must have at least 1,000 flight hours and have flown five different types of aircraft, according to Xinhua.
Liaoning is meant to serve as China's "starter carrier." It will give this first class of pilots and sailors experience operating a floating airport -- one of the toughest things in aviation. It took decades for the U.S. Navy to master the art of flying fast jets off of 4.5-acre flight decks (they were even smaller 60 years ago) that are bobbing in the ocean.
The carrier started life as the Soviet ship Varyag. However, she sat unfinished in a Ukrainian shipyard for a decade or so after the breakup of the USSR. In 1998, Chinese investors bought the hulk without engines, electrical equipment, or weapons with the stated intention or turning it into a casino. However, toward the end of the last decade, photos emerged of the ship being refitted for naval service.
At the same time, China began developing its own carrier-based fighter jet, called the J-15, based on the Russian Su-27 -- a carrier-borne fighter developed by the Soviets in the 1980s to fly off Varyag's sister ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov. The Su-33 is a navalized version of the Sukhoi Su-27 land-based fighter.
China apparently bought a Su-27 from Ukraine and reverse-engineered it to develop its J-11 fighter after Russian officials refused to sell the type to China. Once they had a J-11, Chinese engineers developed their own navalized version, the J-15.
China is apparently at work building at least two more aircraft carriers that are reported to enter service sometime in the next decade or so. Some say these ships will be based on the Liaoning's design, meaning they can carry about 30 fighters, while others say they may be based on the Soviets' larger, unfinished follow-on to the Admiral Kuznetsov, the Ulanovsk, meant to carry almost 50 planes plus helicopters.
Here's a little tidbit to impress your friends this weekend: Bloomberg Government just published a report on the Pentagon's and Intelligence Communities' classified spending and found that the vast majority of classified weapons development money goes to the U.S. Air Force.
That's right, the flyboys get the most cash to develop everything from super-secret stealth bombers and spy planes to space and cyber weaponry, according to the report.
"Almost all classified procurement money and two-thirds of the research and development funds were allocated to the Air Force," reads the B-Gov report. "About $17 billion of Air Force classified funds are labeled ‘Other Procurement,' which probably includes money for space and cyber programs."
The report points out that big chunk of cash in the Air Force's classified budget is for the service's new bomber (I took the iPhone photo above of Northrop Grumman's concept design for the bomber a couple of years ago at a trade show. It apparently rides rainbows of doom).
The Air Force requested $292 million for fiscal 2013 to develop a new strategic bomber. The funding for it will quickly rise to $2.7 billion in fiscal 2017, making it the largest special access program in that year.
The bomber is a stealth jet that's supposed to work hand in hand with a "family" of other stealthy spy planes and fighter jets, along with satellites, to go out and hunt down targets in heavily defended airspace, Air Force leaders have repeatedly said.
The planned fleet of 80 to 100 new stealth bombers will be built using existing technology in order to get them into service by the 2020s (some think that the planes are already flying over the Nevada desert) and will be designed to be "optionally-manned."
This means that the aircraft doesn't need pilots aboard for the most dangerous conventional strike missions (it can also help for incredibly long missions that would be too long for pilots to endure.) However, for less risky sorties or nuclear strike missions, the plane would be manned.
While Iran's got a somewhat less than "Epic" new propeller-powered UAV, China might be jumping on the stealth drone bandwagon sooner than you thought.
Until now, we've seen photos of Chinese-made versions of propeller-driven drones that strongly resemble their American counterparts like the MQ-9 Reaper.
China has been developing what amount to mock-ups and model airplanes of stealth drones for years now. But it's unclear whether the plane shown above is an actual production jet, or just another mock up. (It might also be a fake, like this false image of a Chinese stealth jet that was circulating the Internet in 2011.)
While there's no way of verifying these grainy photos show a plane that could actually fly, Wired's Danger Room points out that the Pentagon's latest report on Chinese military capabilities says that the PLA is working to field "Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles [that] will increase China's ability to conduct long-range reconnaissance and strike operations." The Pentagon usually describes stealth drones like the X-47B and others with very similar language.
Some online forums claim the aircraft is being built for use by the Chinese air force and navy and that it conducted ground tests in December 2012 and is being readied for a flight test later this year. The introduction of such a weapon would make sense given the PLA's desire to project greater power throughout the Western Pacific. A partial list of platforms to support this strategy includes the J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters, aircraft carriers, and strategic jet transport planes.
The U.S. Navy is hoping to have a fleet of carrier-launcher stealth jet drones that can perform long-range surveillance and strike missions by the early 2020s. The Navy sees these jets as key to its strategy of operating in the Pacific Ocean, particularly since China's development of weapons aims to keep U.S. ships far from its shores. The battle for unmanned aerial supremacy is definitely heating up.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.