The Navy’s ultra-sophisticated X-47B Drone aircraft became the first unmanned vehicle to undergo successful aerial refueling. The event took place in April of 2015 as the aircraft successfully hooked up to an Omega KC-707 Air Force tanker aircraft and successfully completed the autonomous refueling process. The refueling took place over the Navy’s Atlantic Test Range. It is just one of the many accomplishments so far for this highly controversial yet promising carrier based drone system.
The Aircraft was originally part of a multi force use design that was eventually scrapped in 2006 as a result of budget cuts but was almost immediately picked up again as part of the Navy’s independent drone program. Northrop Grumman was officially awarded a 600 million plus contract for the development of the aircraft in 2007. The aircraft was first flown successfully in February of 2011 and experienced a string of successes in carrier testing from 2013 – 2014. These included the first successful carrier touch and go by a drone aircraft, the first successful catapult launch off a carrier by a drone aircraft, the first arrested landing on an aircraft carrier by a drone aircraft and the successful coordination of a mission with a manned aircraft.
The aircraft was designed with both an attack and reconnaissance role in mind. The initial thought was for the aircraft to penetrate a hostile nation’s air defenses and see what type of force they were up against before a manned squadron of aircraft entered the same airspace.
The aircraft is a tailless drone that has a stealth configuration and is jet propelled. It is capable of travelling at speeds over 600 miles per hour. The aircraft is some 32 feet long and has over a 60 foot wingspan. It is said to be capable of flying as high as 40,000 and traveling over 2100 miles on a single fuel load; it has an in-flight refueling capability as was previously mentioned that can significantly extend its range.
When configured as an attack aircraft, it can hold some 4500 pounds of ordinance in its duel weapon bays under the aircraft. It can also be configured to carry a variety of both electronic, photo and video surveillance equipment.
Even with all of its successes, the future of the program remains in doubt; there are two reasons for this. One has been the Navy’s concern that the drone is not stealthy enough to penetrate an enemy’s air defense system and the other is the outlook on costs that make the aircraft much more expensive to buy than the Navy was originally looking for. The book is not closed yet and both Northrop Grumman and the Navy are looking to continue the project if the company can enhance the aircraft’s stealth capabilities and bring down the cost.
What happens in the next year will probably be the determining factor in this drone aircraft’s future; whether that will mean continued production or scrapping the program remains to be seen.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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