Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said this week's first-ever landing of an experimental drone on an aircraft carrier shows how the nuclear-powered fleet will remain relevant for decades to come.
The X-47B unmanned aircraft's arrested landing aboard the USS George H.W. Bush on Wednesday in the Atlantic Ocean was the "winning argument" in the debate over whether the Navy's fleet of nuclear-powered carriers are too vulnerable to anti-ship weapons and other technology, according to Mabus.
"It was a historic moment for aviation, a remarkable achievement of naval power and a powerful demonstration of why aircraft carriers will remain relevant and critical to America’s future naval supremacy," he wrote in an op-ed published yesterday in The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
The drone, one of two prototypes built by Falls Church, Va.-based Northrop Grumman Corp., completed two carrier landings and takeoffs aboard the Navy's newest aircraft carrier. A third planned touchdown was aborted after one of the aircraft's navigational computers failed.
The event was the culmination of a development program called the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator, or UCAS-D, which has cost about $1.4 billion over eight years.
"It has been one of the Navy’s most successful, meeting all required objectives within budget and on time," Mabus wrote.
The effort was designed to demonstrate the technology’s potential and pave the way for a larger program, called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, to build an armed, carrier-based drone fleet.
The Navy wants to add operational drones to air wings in 2019 to extend the range of carrier groups. Unmanned aircraft can stay aloft for more than a day — three times longer than manned planes. The systems will be initially used for surveillance and refueling missions, and eventually for strike operations.
"The operational unmanned aircraft ... will radically change the way presence and combat power is delivered from aircraft carriers by conducting surveillance and strike missions at extreme distances and over very long periods of time," Mabus wrote.
Unmanned aircraft will put fewer sailors and Marines in harms' way, expand action further from the ship and create efficiencies in part because they don't require flights to keep pilots proficient, according to the Navy secretary.
"Not only will the future carrier air wing be more combat effective, they will cost less to build, and less expensive airframes mean we can build more and use them differently, like developing swarm tactics and performing maneuvers that require more g-force than a human body can withstand," Mabus wrote.
Still, the Navy's top civilian acknowledged that carriers face numerous threats.
"Potential adversaries are developing more advanced anti-ship cruise missiles and ballistic missiles for targeting ships at sea," he wrote. "However, these same missile technologies pose a greater threat to immobile airfields ashore."
He added, "Targeting information for fixed shore bases is relatively easy. A moving carrier far at sea is a much harder problem for our adversaries to solve, and our advancing electronic warfare capabilities make it even harder."
The Navy plans to issue a draft request for proposals for the first phase of the UCLASS program in August, followed by a formal request to start the competition next year. The service would pick a single winner by the end of 2014.
Northrop Grumman is expected to square off against other defense giants for the work, including Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Lockheed Martin is pitching the Sea Ghost, Boeing the Phantom Ray, and General Atomics the Sea Avenger.