X-47B First Flight


The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator

02/10/2011 – An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator completes its first flight at Edwards Air Force Base. The Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration program will demonstrate the capability of an autonomous, low-observable unmanned aircraft to perform carrier launches and recoveries.

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Credit Photos and Text : Navy Visual News Service, 2/4/11

From our earlier article on the Naval UCAS:

The program brings a number of key enhancements to the table, and these contributions suggest a template for the types of new programs, which should be supported even in a constrained fiscal environment.

First, it extends the strike range of an already funded core capability, namely, the carrier task force. Tactical aircraft have limited range; the UCAS has much greater range and reach. This makes it valuable in and of itself, but extending the reach of the new tactical aviation asset to be deployed to the fleet, namely the F-35, enhances its value. The sensor and communication capabilities of the F-35 are significant, but the reach of the aircraft remains within tactical ranges; the UCAS has forward strategic strike reach as well as ISR and communications reach-back to the tactical assets.

The UCAS can spearhead the entire sensor and strike grid put up by the carrier task force. Second, the UCAS will be the first unmanned system developed in the wake of the deployment of the new F-35. The F-35 as a “flying combat system” should be a generator of change in the unmanned fleet.

The development and then deployment of the UCAS will be integrally interconnected with the F-35, and as such can take advantage of commonality in sensors and communications with the new manned aircraft. Shaping a common concept of operations between the F-35 and the UCAS can provide an important stimulus for change for the US Air Force as well.

Third, it is highly likely that the US Air Force new bomber program will be shifted to the right in funding priorities. This provides a significant opportunity for the US Air Force to learn from the US Navy’s experience in deploying the UCAS with the F-35 to shape a possible unmanned successor for the manned bomber.

A template could be shaped by the Navy, which could provide important lessons learned in shaping the US Air Force’s strategy to work the future of its unmanned programs with manned aircraft.

Fourth, the company building the UCAS demonstrator, Northrop Grumman, can draw on significant lessons learned in their other unmanned programs, such as Global Hawk, and on their core contributions in sensors and communications to the F-35 to provide a realistic development to production program for the new UCAS aircraft.

In other words, the program evidences a number of key qualities, which makes it worthy of finding even in a stringent environment. It leverages significant capabilities already paid for and deployed. It leverages new capabilities coming into the fleet. It provides a way to enhance synergy between both power projection forces. It provides a learning curve, which the US Air Force can use in shaping its future development and acquisition approach. (see: https://www.sldinfo.com/?p=162)