Today’s successful launch of an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator marks a significant turning point for Naval Aviation, as much for its cultural acceptance by the community as for its technological significance.
As a newly minted Naval Aviator in 2002, the mere mention of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the ready room was enough to send most discussions into overdrive. The Navy, after all, would never have a need for drones, especially not ones launched from an aircraft carrier or a surface combatant. When a leading aircraft manufacturer’s UAV team joined us during a cruise in 2003 to measure the GEORGE WASHINGTON’s flight deck, the response was a mixture of mild curiosity and more than a little negativity.
What a difference 11 years makes. UAVs have undeniably altered modern warfare and, having found broad cultural acceptance within the military, the conversation now revolves around the roles the platforms should adopt, rather than whether or not we should accept unmanned vehicles into the ranks.
The Navy, for its part, is making significant headway in incorporating UAVs.
The MQ-8B Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter, is flying missions off the coast of Africa, a scant seven years after its first autonomous landing on USS NASHVILLE during flight evaluations in January 2006. During Operation Unified Protector in Libya, the drone provided real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in areas where it was deemed unsafe for manned helicopters to fly. (In fact, one of the two Fire Scouts stationed onboard USS HALYBURTON was shot down during a mission in theater).
The MQ-4C Triton, a marinised version of the Global Hawk, will provide long-endurance ISR missions in support of maritime domain awareness (MDA) and is expected to join the Fleet in 2015 (the first squadron, VUP-19 in NAS Jacksonville, is already standing up). Designed to complement the P-8A Poseidon’s role, the long range, high-endurance Triton will provide five continuous orbits around the globe, freeing up the P-8 for roles which require more responsiveness and flexibility.
Today’s X-47B launch is certainly a laudable technological achievement, placing us on a path towards redefining the composition of the modern-day air wing.
Most importantly, today’s launch vividly demonstrates Naval Aviation’s cultural shift towards the widespread acceptance and use of UAVs, a key enabler necessary for these systems to reach their full potential.