The Complex

Photos of the week: China's got a stealth drone

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.

(Remember, earlier this week we showed you grainy photos of what appeared to be China's effort to join the United States, France, Britain, and Russia as members of the stealth drone club.)

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.

Until now, we had only seen Chinese versions of U.S. drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper and what appears to be an attempt to field a high altitude, jet-powered spy plane similar to the RQ-4 Global Hawk.

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.

Chinese Internet

National Security

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