A robotic plane landed, took off and landed again on an aircraft carrier off the Virginia coast Wednesday, catapulting the Navy into the next generation of aviation. It's an historical moment, on par with the first flight Eugene Ely made off a ship in 1910. The Navy Secretary who watched it all go down couldn't help but be ebullient about presiding over the sea service on a day that made history.
"It's not often that you see into the future, but that's what we got to see today," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus declared in the hangar of the Bush after the successful landing. Ultimately, these planes will be fully integrated into naval aviation, helping stealth fighters like the Joint Strike Fighter to return to its strike fighter roots. "The platform and the payload it carries will evolve, and it will give us what the Navy needs the most, which is presence, which is being not just at the right place at the right time, but the right place, all the time."
But the future of the Navy's stealth drone program is still unclear, as money may be cut from the follow-on program to this experimental phase in the Pentagon's budget crunch. And meanwhile, the future of the very X-47B drone that roared to a stop on top of the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush today, along with its twin, is also unclear.
The two X-47Bs are slated to become museum pieces after this epochal day - or at least, that was the idea. But after the drone landing, Navy's top officer held open the possibility of new flights and new missions for the robotic aircraft.
It was also supposed to be a final one. Today was meant to mark the end of a $1.4 billion experiment. But the fate of the Salty Dog 502 and its mate, Salty Dog 501, is murky. Navy officials had said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday that the two drones, their work now complete, would essentially become museum pieces, one at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., and the other to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. But it wasn't clear Wednesday if the Navy intended to send them to become displays yet or not.
One program official told reporters there were no more plans for either of the drones and the program "wasn't prepared to take it" any further.
"The big leap, the big step, is to do what we're doing here today," that official said.
Later, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert spoke in the hangar of the Bush and seemed to indicate the Navy wasn't ready to hang the drones away just yet.
"These demonstrators will be retired eventually, but they have so much more work to do as we continue this demonstration and move on and understand the concept of operations."
Those questions will stay unanswered for now. The event today showed that the Navy could take the next step in its experimental program. On a sunny afternoon about 80 miles off the Virginia coastline, Mabus, Greenert and a contingent of reporters and photographers heard the ship's speakers announce that the drone was five miles out. Soon after, three black specs appeared on the horizon. As the formation grew closer, spectators could make out the drone in the middle with two F/A 18s accompanying it, one as a chaser jet and the other to provide photographic coverage of the landing.
Within minutes, "Salty Dog 502" landed, caught the arresting hooks, and came to an abrupt stop without incident as a program manager slapped a high-five with another onlooker.
After a pause - and the media were shepherded to another side of the ship's Vulture's Row to watch - the drone was launched off the bow of the ship's massive deck, only to return once again to land.
The landing was a "miraculous, technological feat," Greenert said later.
The tailless bird, made by Northrop Grumman and resembling a small B-2 bomber, had been put through numerous tests on land. But this was the first time the drone had landed on a carrier.
But the real news was not the successful launch and now landing of a sleek, jet-powered killer drone on a carrier, but that in the span of a decade, the U.S. military has seen drones transform from primitive, propeller-driven flying lawnmowers to unmanned jets that incorporate all of the features of modern manned aircraft: speed, stealth, high-altitude, sensors, electronic gear, and the ability to carry smart, deadly weapons. And now, all that comes in an autonomous package that can be delivered via computer to a carrier at sea.
The X-47B is a tail-less, kite-shaped jet (some say it's the same design that will be used for the Air Force's new, manned stealth bomber) that is landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier without a human at the controls. The plane's computers automatically make thousands of tiny adjustments to its controls every minute just to keep the oddly-shaped the jet in the sky. Meanwhile, the plane executes its missions semi-autonomously, meaning that a human on the ship simply tells the plane to fly a certain mission or perform a task like landing and the jet's autopilot executes it (click here to read about the tech that enables this). This is similar to the way air traffic controllers handle manned jets operating from carriers. The plane can even wave itself off if its onboard computer senses that conditions are not right for it to make a successful landing, a Navy official said in the ship's wardroom today.
Still, don't expect manned fighters to go away anytime soon. Instead, technology that allows the X-47B to fly autonomously will likely be used to allow stealthy drones to do everything from refueling other planes in midair to serving as scouts for the manned fighters and bombers.
The Navy is going to have a fleet of stealthy drones flying such missions by the start of the 2020s. It's yet-to-be-chosen Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike aircraft will be capable of flying missions up to 1,200 miles away from the carrier while carrying a relatively small load of 1,000-pounds of bombs or missiles. Its main mission will be surveillance.
The Air Force meanwhile envisions masses of stealthy UAVs working in concert with its fleet of stealthy fighters and bombers to find targets, shoot down enemy fighters, jam radars and destroy even the most heavily defended targets.
Consider this vignette from the Air Force's Air and Space Power Studies journal: "Above a future battlefield, the long-range-strike bomber Saber 01 prepar[es] to penetrate layered defenses of the enemy's air defense system. A thick "swarm" of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) guards the leading edge of friendly airspace.... Seamlessly, as Saber 01 transits through the front lines, seven small UCAVs join on its wing and swap data-link control from theater air battle managers to the bomber's combat systems operator. Saber 01 serves as equal parts bomber and mothership, its stealth complementing advanced radar and data links, enabling the aircraft to command an automated squadron deep behind enemy lines. As the bomber crosses into enemy territory, the combat systems operator brings the local swarm in closer as the UCAVs begin to contend with the enemy's jammers. The tactical formation of these platforms, combined with a fully networked electronic warfare suite, enables Saber's crew to triangulate a precise fix on the target-an advanced theater surface-to-air-missile site. The enemy's air defense operators had long trained to defeat single antiradar missiles, but Saber 01's payload of hundreds of swarming micro air vehicles overwhelms their defenses with a networked mix of inexpensive warheads, sensors, and airframes."
Despite its head-start in fielding stealthy drones like the Air Force's RQ-170 Sentinel, the U.S. is no longer the only nation developing drones that are as sophisticated as any manned jet. France, England, China and possibly Russia are all building unmanned stealthy jets capable of carrying weapons, sensors and advanced communications systems. In the very near future we will see these jets performing missions that until the last 15 years or so, were reserved for the U.S. Air Force's premiere jets like the B-2 stealth bomber or now-retired F-117A Nighthawk.
But Wednesday was the Navy's day. In the ship's wardroom before the landing, Capt. Jamie Engdahl, deputy program manager for the X-47B, said that even as confident as he was that the drone would land OK, he still couldn't help but feel the momentousness of the occasion.
"This is history," he said.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.