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Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012

Drone race heats up between U.S. and China

SINGAPORE — When an aircraft shaped like a flying bat was lowered gently by crane onto the deck of a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the other day, it marked the latest phase in a high-stakes gamble to help sustain America's military presence in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of increasing challenges from China.

The Chinese armed forces are developing anti-ship ballistic missiles and other difficult-to-defend against weapons to try to keep U.S. carriers and their manned jet fighters several thousand kilometers away from China's mainland in a crisis. In response, the U.S. is seeking ways to keep its forces and military personnel safe from attack by operating at much longer ranges.

The arrival of the tailless and stealthy X-47B on the USS Harry S. Truman at the Norfolk naval base in Virginia on Nov. 26 is the first time that an unmanned combat jet plane has been on a carrier. The X-47B is an experimental strike and surveillance aircraft. It is designed to perform one of the most difficult feats in aviation: to land and take off safely from a carrier deck at sea, but to do so without a pilot. It is about the size of a modern piloted jet fighter. However, it is computer-controlled and designed to take off, fly a pre-programmed mission, then return to base in response to mouse-clicks from its mission operator.

The operator monitors the X-47B's flight and can vary its computer-programmed instructions if necessary. But the operator does not actively "fly" it via remote control, as with other unmanned drones currently in operation.

For the next few weeks, the X-47B on the carrier will be given flight deck movement tests. Meanwhile, a second X-47B will practice touching down and taking off on a simulated carrier deck on land. It was launched by catapult for the first time on Nov. 29.

The drone is due to make its first landing on a carrier next year, relying on pinpoint Global Positioning Satellite coordinates and advanced avionics to touch down precisely in time to catch an arrester wire on deck, abort the approach if required, and take off again if the hook misses the wire — just as a manned jet fighter would.

If all goes well, aerial refueling of the X-47B will start in 2014 and involve both unmanned and manned tankers. This would be a critical stage in development of the X-47B, which has been under way for the U.S. Navy since 2007 and has already cost over U.S. $800 million.

A crash, always a possibility in such a high-risk environment as naval aviation, could be disastrous because there are only two of the unmanned jets available. However, success could lead to mass production and open a new phase of naval warfare.

The X-47B is similar in shape to the much larger U.S. B-2's long-range manned stealth bomber, also built by Northrop Grumman. Both aircraft have no fuselage or vertical tail. Their all wing design eliminates much of the surface area that would cause drag on a conventional aircraft.

It also eliminates many of the surfaces and edges from which radar energy would normally reflect, making a plane detectable.

The X-47B can carry slightly more than two tons of munitions, about one-ninth of the B-2's payload.

Using manned aircraft, the 11 carriers operated by the U.S. today are best suited for striking targets at ranges out to about 830 km. To avoid pilot fatigue, a typical mission lasts for only a few hours.

The X-47B, which was first flight tested in February 2011 and travels at just below the speed of sound, has an unrefueled endurance of more than six hours and an unrefuelled range of over 3,890 km.

With aerial refueling, the X-47B could remain on patrol at ranges well beyond 5,500 km and stay aloft for 50 to 100 hours — five to 10 times longer than a manned aircraft. This extended reach and ability to stay within range of its target, either for reconnaissance or attack, would allow a dispersed U.S. aircraft carrier force to apply combat power over an enormous area.

Remotely piloted drones, such as the Reaper and Predator, have become key weapons for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the military in their campaign against terrorists and insurgents in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Since al-Qaida's Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the U.S., the number of military-related drones in service in America has risen from just a small number to over 7,500 — roughly one-third of all U.S. military aircraft.

Despite big cuts that are looming in U.S. defense spending, drones are expected to take less of a hit because of their potential to help maintain American military power and because they are cheaper to build and operate than piloted combat planes.

Can China catch the U.S. in drone technology? At China's biennial air show in Zhuhai last month, an imposing fleet of operational and model drones was on show, most of them strikingly similar in appearance to leading U.S. drones.

One of them, the CH-4, which has four under-wing pylons capable of carrying missiles and satellite-guided precision bombs, reportedly has a range of more than 3,500 km and is intended for missions over islands disputed between China and its neighbors in the East and South China seas.

China has had a drone program since the mid-1990s. But much of it is shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult to assess how advanced it actually is.

Still, a panel of experts advising the Pentagon reported in July that China is "moving rapidly to catch up — and perhaps ultimately overtake — the West in this rapidly growing and increasingly important sector of aerospace and defence."

The panel, known as the Defense Science Board (DSB), said that the military significance of China's move into unmanned systems was alarming. "The country has a great deal of technology, seemingly unlimited resources and clearly is leveraging all available information on Western unmanned systems development," the DSB reported.

It said that China's plan for Anjian (Dark Sword) represented an aspiration to design something even Western powers did not yet have — a supersonic drone capable of air-to-air combat as well as ground strikes.

The DSB report added that the new Chinese drone design, with its high altitude, could serve as the targeting node for China's anti-ship ballistic missiles aimed at U.S. aircraft carriers.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

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