Home » Aviation » Navy Could Test Aerial Refueling on X-47B in 2015


Navy Could Test Aerial Refueling on X-47B in 2015

X-47B UCAS. Northrop Grumman Photo

X-47B UCAS. Northrop Grumman Photo

If the Navy can get the resources, it plans to test an aerial refueling capability on its experimental carrier-launched unmanned aerial vehicle, the X-47B, as early as next year, Naval Air Systems Command officials told USNI News on Tuesday.

The move follows a $64 million June 2014 contract award to Northrop Grumman that extended the testing schedule of the Navy’s two X-47Bs on carriers and continue autonomous aerial refueling (AAR) research as part of the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System demonstration (UCAS-D) program.

“Those efforts include additional [carrier] detachments and AAR software coding through the remainder of this calendar year,” said NAVAIR program manager Capt. Beau Duarte in a statement provided to USNI News on Tuesday.
“If resources allow, the Navy may demonstrate autonomous engagement flight testing in fiscal year 2015.”

In 2013, USNI News reported NAVAIR had tentatively scheduled an autonomous aerial refueling (AAR) in 2015.

NAVAIR has conducted AAR tests with a surrogate aircraft to test the X-47B software that allows the test plane to mimic the interaction between the tanker and the aircraft receiving the fuel but stops short of a mid-air refueling.

One of the two X-47Bs — called Salty Dog 501 and Salty Dog 502 — is equipped with an aerial refueling capability, USNI News understands.

AAR has become an issue in the ongoing debate over the Navy’s plan for a production carrier-based UAV, the Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS).

Outlines for a less expensive and more surveillance oriented UCLASS eschew the need for AAR and create an aircraft with a longer inherent endurance and a lower cost per airframe.

Advocates for a more heavily armed and stealthy UCLASS say that AAR is essential for extending the range of the aircraft for deep penetrating strikes.

“The current trajectory for the Navy program was 14-plus hours of unrefueled endurance, which then forces you to compromise on payload as well as on signature reduction,” Robert Martinage, former Department of the Navy under secretary and currently with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary assessments told National Defense Magazine on Monday.
“If the aircraft is capable of air-to-air refueling, the argument in favor of really long unrefueled organic range — 14 hours plus — is weakened.”

Categories: Aviation, Budget Industry, News & Analysis, U.S. Navy
Sam LaGrone

About Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the USNI Online Editor at the U.S. Naval Institute.
He was formerly the U.S. Maritime Correspondent for the Washington D.C. bureau of Jane’s Defence Weekly and Jane’s Navy International. In his role he covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Sam is a 2003 graduate of Virginia Military Institute.

  • ed2291

    If the x-47B could give fuel as well as receive it then that would also give the Navy needed options.

    • loupgarous

      Interesting idea. Buddy tanks? That might take ALL the human risk out of the equation… a tanker version of the X-47b topping off other drones? Or even having one or two orbiting to top manned aircraft off… if NRL actually manages to synthesize fuel on carriers, that’d give carrier air wings greater station-keeping capability.

      • ed2291

        Exactly! Though I am not a naval aviator, I remember many times where having aerial refueling was critical.

  • navy test aerial refueling x-47b new 2015

  • Secundius

    If the aircraft can’t do the job it was designed to do, why give it a job it was never meant to do. Where’s the logic in that.

  • James B.

    The worst thing the Navy could do is load down their drones with multiple requirements, and try to build a Super Hornet that just doesn’t have a pilot inside.

    The beauty of drones is that they can be optimized for specific capabilities far beyond the capacity of manned aircraft; those tasks include endurance/range, speed/maneuverability, and my personal favorite, expendability.

    Build each drone to do one job as cost-effectively as possible