Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Does Navy Drone Spell End of the Super Hornet?

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Does Navy Drone Spell End of the Super Hornet?

Article excerpt

Something happened on the deck of an aircraft carrier off the coast of Virginia on Tuesday that could eventually ripple all the way back to one of the biggest factories in the St. Louis area.

The X-47B took off.

It was a "watershed event," said the Navy's head of aviation, the first-ever launch of an unmanned combat drone at sea. While the Northrop Grumman-built X-47B hasn't yet stuck a carrier landing one of the hardest feats in all of aviation Navy officials think that'll happen this summer, and they hope that by the end of the decade drones will be a big part of their air combat fleet.

All of which raises some big questions about the future of the plane that makes up much of the Navy's air combat fleet today: The F/ A-18 Super Hornet.

That jet, along with its sister plane the E/A-18 Growler, is assembled by Boeing Co. in north St. Louis County. About 5,000 people here work on the program, and it's the last major plane- assembly line in the region, pumping out nearly one fighter jet a week for about $55 million a pop. Battle-ready drones would appear to be a direct competitor.

It'll be years before some son of the X-47B is ready for mass production, and even then no one expects it will ever fully supplant manned jets in the Naval air fleet. But defense experts such as James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, say these robotic war fighters are inevitably on the rise.

"There's no risk to human life, to a pilot. They're stealthier. If you can make them work, they should do the job really well," Lewis said. "This is going to be the future."

The Navy is still determining what, exactly, it wants in its Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system, or UCLASS. A spokeswoman said the service hopes to launch a competition for the contract next year.

But even the prototype X-47B has some clear advantages over the Super Hornet, the biggest being the fact that removing a human from the equation means the thing can fly for days, not just a few hours. That's crucial for surveillance missions, which the Navy says will be its first use for drones. It has no plans at the moment to arm them.

That could eventually change though, Lewis said. While he doesn't see fighter jocks, or their jets, ever going away entirely, he said he could envision a future in which one manned jet leads a squadron of three drones into battle, then pulls back and lets them do the fighting. Ultimately, he said, that means the Navy won't need a full fleet of both. …

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