x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

US navy makes aviation history with carrier drone launch

Unmanned bat-winged X-47B stealth drone launched off aircraft carrier for the first time.

An X-47B pilot-less drone is launched for the first time off an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia.
An X-47B pilot-less drone is launched for the first time off an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia.

ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H W BUSH // The US navy has made aviation history by launching an unmanned jet off an aircraft carrier for the first time.

The successful launch was an important step towards expanded use of drones by the American military with an eye on possible rivals like China and Iran.

The bat-winged X-47B stealth drone roared off the USS George HW Bush near the coast of Virginia on Tuesday and flew a series of preprogrammed manoeuvres around the ship before veering away toward a Naval air station in Maryland where it was scheduled to land.

"This is really a red-letter day. May 14 we all saw history happen" said Rear Admiral Ted Branch, the Atlantic naval air commander. "It's a marker ... between naval aviation as we've known it and the future of naval aviation with the launch of the X-47B."

Because of its stealth potential and a range nearly twice that of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the X-47B and its successors are seen as a potential answer to the threat posed by medium-range anti-ship missiles developed by China and Iran, defence analysts said.

The missiles and other so-called anti-access, area-denial weapons would force US aircraft carriers to operate far enough from shore that piloted aircraft would have to undergo refuelling to carry out their missions, leaving them vulnerable to attack.

But with a range of 2,000 nautical miles, an unmanned jet like the X-47B could give the navy both a long-range strike and reconnaissance capability.

"That makes it strategically very important," said Anthony Cordesman, a senior defence analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He described the drone as "essentially a really long-range stealth system".