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X-47B, the new silent killer over water

Last updated on: May 15, 2013 11:21 IST

X-47B, the new silent killer over water

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The United States Navy has for the first time launched an unmanned aircraft the size of a fighter jet from a warship in the Atlantic Ocean, as it wades deeper into America's drone programme amid growing concerns over the legality of its escalating surveillance and lethal strikes.

Called the X-47B, the drone is considered particularly valuable because it's the first that is designed specifically to take off and land on an aircraft carrier, allowing it to be used around the world without needing the permission of other countries to serve as a home base.

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Image: An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator launches from the aircraft carrier USS George H W Bush (CVN 77). George H W Bush is the first aircraft carrier to successfully catapult launch an unmanned aircraft from its flight deck
Photographs: Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman by Alan Radecki/Released

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X-47B, the new silent killer over water

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The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator completed its first ever carrier-based catapult launch from USS George H W Bush off the coast of Virginia on Tuesday. 

"Today we saw a small, but significant pixel in the future picture of our Navy as we begin integration of unmanned systems into arguably the most complex warfighting environment that exists today: the flight deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier," said Vice Admiral David Buss, commander, Naval Air Forces.

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Image: An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H W Bush
Photographs: Tony D Curtis/US Navy

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X-47B, the new silent killer over water

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The unmanned aircraft executed several planned low approaches to the carrier and safely transited across the Chesapeake Bay to land at Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, after a 65-minute flight. 

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Image: An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator flies over the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush
Photographs: Photo Courtesy Northrop Grumman

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X-47B, the new silent killer over water

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Buss called the launch a "watershed event" in naval aviation.

"This ship and her crew continuously meet the challenges placed before them," said the ship's commanding officer, Captain Brian E Luther.

"The successful launch of the X-47B is yet another first on USS George H W Bush. We were excited to host the experimental aircraft, and are proud to know we have played a part in a significant milestone in naval aviation."

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Image: An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator launches from the flight deck
Photographs: Michael Smevog/US Navy

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X-47B, the new silent killer over water

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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.

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Image: An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator passes over the flight deck
Photographs: Michael Smevog/US Navy
Tags: X-47B , PHOTOS , F-35 , China , Iran

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X-47B, the new silent killer over water

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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.

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Image: An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator passes over the flight deck
Photographs: Michael Smevog/US Navy
Tags: PHOTOS , X-47B , US

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X-47B, the new silent killer over water

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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 Centre for Strategic and International Studies. He described the drone as "essentially a really long-range stealth system."

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Image: Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS George H W Bush prepare to launch an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System
Photographs: Michael Smevog/US Navy

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X-47B, the new silent killer over water

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The X-47B -- one of only two demonstrator models made by Northrop Grumman -- carries the equivalent of two precision-guided bombs. It was catapulted from the aircraft carrier on Tuesday using the same sling-shot system that sends manned aircraft aloft.

Prior to the catapult launch on Tuesday, the UCAS test team also conducted deck-handling and ship-integration testing to demonstrate the capability to safely operate the X-47B in the dynamic, unforgiving environment of an aircraft carrier flight deck. 

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Image: An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier
Photographs: Brian Read Castillo/US Navy

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X-47B, the new silent killer over water

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"This event is a testament to the teamwork, professionalism and expertise of everyone involved with X-47B programme," said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, programme executive officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. "Their work will positively impact future unmanned aviation development for years to come."

Over the next few weeks, the X-47B aircraft will fly approaches to the ship multiple times and eventually land on the pitching flight deck, said Navy UCAS Programme Manager Capt Jaime Engdahl. 

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Image: An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator prepares to launch from the flight deck
Photographs: Brian Read Castillo/US Navy

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X-47B, the new silent killer over water

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The UCAS team will conduct additional shore-based testing with the X-47B at NAS Patuxent River in the coming months before its final carrier-based arrested landing demonstration later this summer.

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Image: An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator flies over the flight deck
Photographs: Brian Read Castillo/US Navy

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