Six months after the U.S. Navy’s first full size combat UAV made its first flight, the U.S. Navy leadership has ordered naval aviation leaders to examine the possibility of reducing orders for the new F-35B and F-35C, and use that money to buy the new X-47B, and similar robotic combat aircraft. That move was probably helped along by DARPA (the Department of Defense’s research organization), which earlier this year decided to explore development of robotic ground support aircraft.
DARPA will turn F-16s, F-18s and A-10s into unmanned ground support aircraft, to see if they can perform as well as the manned versions. In addition, DARPA will seek designs that improve on the performance of the current MQ-9 Reaper. DARPA wants its experimental aircraft operating within two years. The navy currently plans to buy 680 F-35B and F-35C aircraft, for (on average) $100 million each. A UCAS (Unmanned Combat Aerial System) costs less than half that, and provides most of the same capabilities.
Within five years, the navy plans to have the X-47B demonstrating the ability to regularly operate from a carrier, and perform combat (including reconnaissance and surveillance) operations. The new efforts aim to have UCAS aircraft perform ground attack missions as well, something the Predators have been doing for over a decade.
The X-47B weighs the same as the F-18, and has two internal bays holding two tons of smart bombs. Once it can operate off a carrier, the X-47B will be used for a lot of bombing. Sort of a super-Reaper. The navy has been impressed with the success of the Predator and Reaper. But the Reaper weighs only 4.7 tons. The much larger, 15 ton, X-47B uses a F100-PW-220 engine, which is currently used in the F-16 and F-15.