The Complex

The Navy's X-47B stealth drone just took off from an aircraft carrier

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.

U.S. Navy

National Security

China formally stands up its first carrier aviation unit

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.

Chinese Internet