The Mighty X-47B: Is It Really Time for Retirement?

The X-47B program has been a great success. Is it really time for the boneyard?

Methinks the U.S. Navy has contracted some weird allergy to fleet experimentation. Why else would service potentates retire a promising experimental aircraft like the X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator, or UCAS-D, in its infancy?

Experimentation, of course, is the process of testing some tactic, concept, or piece of kit against reality. Why go to the trouble and expense? Because it’s easy to dream up some gee-whiz idea or build newfangled hardware, hard to tell whether one’s brainchild will work in the real world—surroundings that often appear set against innovation. No auto maker orders a concept car into full-scale production before taking it out on the road to vet the new gadgetry. It’s a testbed for new, oftentimes radical ideas.

The same applies to the martial realm, except fielding new military systems is harder than building a late-model car by an order of magnitude. Reality is a perverse thing, ruled not just by the laws of physics and other nuisances but by opponents bent on stymieing one’s best efforts. Ergo, it’s important to start experimenting early when developing something unorthodox. As one expert on undersea warfare observes, systems put into mass production “have a minimal probability of failure if they’ve survived rigorous experimentation throughout their development. Conversely, if we wait to experiment with systems until they’re almost ready for fleet introduction, the incentive to distort results to avoid system ‘failure’ can be high. We need to prevent that, and we do it by experimenting throughout a system’s development.”

So there’s a politics to innovation as well. Everyone expects failures in the early going. Learning from setbacks is the point of testing unproven hypotheses. This makes for a relatively carefree atmosphere. Think the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. Not so with a program that’s well advanced toward serial production. Such programs develop constituencies—and constituents have a vested interest in hyping a program’s successes while soft-pedaling its shortcomings. Resources and reputations ride on it. Its backers fear the blowback that ensues when delays slow down production or design flaws discovered late in the process demand pricey fixes. Our submarine expert again: “Failure is easier to accept when we’re examining concepts, as opposed to production systems that have enormous resources already sunk into their development.”

The late Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer, the father of the Aegis combat system—the beating heart of fleet air defense since the 1980s—once proclaimed that the route to success in technical innovation is to “build a little, test a little, learn a lot.” Build a few of some new platform, put them through their paces, find out what does and doesn’t work, and incorporate the best of the findings into the next generation while discarding the worst. That’s the experimenter’s credo. Which brings us back to naval aviation’s newest experiment. The two pilotless, autonomous warplanes constructed under the UCAS-D program have notched a series of historical firsts over the past two years. In July 2013 an X-47B landed safely on an aircraft-carrier flight deck and catapulted off the bow again. Last August, the planes kept up the same 90-second launch-and-recovery cycle as their piloted brethren. Just last month an X-47B refueled in midflight.

These are big deals. Landing aboard a postage-stamp-sized airfield—carriers may be mammoth ships, but they’re tiny airports—involves using a tailhook mounted on the plane’s undercarriage to snare an arresting wire stretched across the deck. That yanks the aircraft to a screeching halt. Aviators report that, far from being humdrum routine, carrier landings are more stressful than combat. That’s testament to this operation’s delicacy—and thus to the UCAS-D’s achievement.

Midair tanking is another crucial yet delicate undertaking. It elongates an aircraft’s combat range and on-station time. It requires the recipient to maneuver in behind and beneath a tanker, extend a probe to receive the fuel, and seat the probe in a drogue dangling from the supply plane. Making the inflight hookup, and sustaining it long enough to refill the tanks, demands constant fine adjustments to course, speed, and altitude. That an onboard computer can pull off such a feat speaks volumes about the future of unmanned naval aviation.

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