America's endless obsession with drones continues with news that the U.S. Navy successfully launched a drone off an aircraft carrier for the first time ever on Tuesday (see video below). According to Reuters, the unmanned X-47B stealth drone took off from the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush near the coast of Virginia and performed a series of maneuvers before landing safely in Maryland. Rear Admiral Ted Branch, the Atlantic naval air commander, said "this is really a red-letter day. May 14 we all saw history happen. 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." The X-47B was launched using the same slingshot system that manned aircraft use on aircraft carriers.
While pointing out that the Navy has not accomplished the harder, but equally necessary, maneuver of landing the Northrop Grumman-made X-47B (see picture below) on an aircraft carrier, Wired's Spencer Ackerman called the launch "legitimately historic." Although many other countries now possess, or are developing, unmanned technology, the U.S. still leads the way. And Tuesday's launch only further entrenches America's unmanned air superiority and its ability to project its forces abroad, a worrying development given its conduct in its current drone wars.
Although the X-47B is just a demonstration drone, it has demonstrated a lot. At present no country "possesses a drone that can operate off the deck of an aircraft carrier, a complex and dangerous environment that requires years of pilot training and constant deck-crew coordination." Given Tuesday's launch, however, that is just a matter of time. The X-47B will now undergo two weeks of extensive testing before attempting a landing on the ship.
At present, U.S. drones take off from airfields relatively close to their indeed targets. But being able to launch drones like the X-47B, which has a range of 2,000 nautical miles, from an aircraft carrier would mean there was no need to build a drone base near the intended target. Reuters cites defense analysts as saying that "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." Launching drones off an aircraft carrier would give "the Navy both a long-range strike and reconnaissance capability." As Anthony Cordesman, a senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes, "that makes it strategically very important."
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
According to Ackerman, the X-47B demonstrator model will soon give way to what will be called the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) robot, a stealth drone that is meant to operate from an aircraft carrier and fly alongside manned aircraft. Four companies, including Northrop Grumman, are competing to have their design picked and the Navy plans to integrate the winning drone into its operations by the end of the decade.
Rear Admiral Matt Winter, the Navy’s chief program officer for unmanned systems, called Tuesday's launch "one small step for man ... and one significant technical step for unmanned-kind.” Unlike other drones in use at the moment, the flight programme of the X-47B is pre-programmed, and it maneuvers itself autonomously with the help of GPS. Humans monitoring its progress on the ship only intervene if something goes awry. This trend towards increasing autonomy has been criticised by organisations such as Human Rights Watch, which cited the X-47B in its report "Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots."
While concerns about autonomous drones making decisions to kill without humans in the loop may seem distant, America's present use of drones controlled by humans for extrajudicial killings should be enough to make anyone nervous and concerned about this latest evidence of the impending expansion of its unmanned capabilities.