US Navy launches unmanned aircraft from carrier

May 14, 2013 by Brock Vergakis
A Navy X-47B drone does a fly by the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush after it was launched from the carrier off the coast of Virginia, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The U.S. Navy for the first time Tuesday launched an unmanned aircraft the size of a fighter jet from a warship in the Atlantic Ocean, as it wades deeper into America's drone program amid growing concerns over the legality of its escalating surveillance and lethal strikes.

Called the X-47B, the drone is considered particularly valuable because it's the first that is designed specifically to take off and land on an aircraft carrier, allowing it to be used around the world without needing the permission of other countries to serve as a home base.

There has been increasing pushback against the use of drones from some nations that say the strikes cause widespread and operate with only limited oversight, eroding the U.S. image overseas. officials say the drone will provide around-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and targeting capabilities.

The X-47B took off successfully Tuesday morning and made two low approaches to the ship before heading back toward land. The test aircraft isn't intended for operational use; instead, the military is using the information it gathers during these demonstrations to develop the program. The Navy already operates two other , the small, low cost ScanEagle, which does not carry weapons, and the armed Fire Scout which is built more like a helicopter.

Both the military and the CIA use armed Predator and Reaper drones in surveillance and strike operations around the world. The military uses them routinely in Afghanistan and other warzones, while the CIA has conducted frequent strikes in the border region of Pakistan—most often secret operations that trigger sharp criticism from the government there.

The X-47B can reach an altitude of more than 40,000 feet (12,000 meters), has a range of more than 2,100 nautical miles (3,400 square kilometers) and can reach high subsonic speeds, according to the Navy. It is also fully autonomous in flight. It relies on computer programs to tell it where it to go unless a mission operator needs to step in. That differs from other drones used by the military, which are more often piloted from remote locations.

A Navy X-47B drone is launched off the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush off the coast of Virginia, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The plane isn't intended for operational use, but it will be used to help develop other unmanned, carrier-based aircraft. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Some critics have said the military's use of drones, furthered by Tuesday's tests, create concerns over the development of systems that could become weaponized and have less and less human control over launching attacks.

Human Rights Watch has called for a pre-emptive prohibition of the development and use of any unmanned systems that carry weapons and are fully autonomous.

A Navy X-47B drone does a fly buy the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush after it was launched off the coast of Virginia, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The plane isn't intended for operational use, but it will be used to help develop other unmanned, carrier-based aircraft. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

While current models, like the X-47B, retain some level of supervision over decisions whether to use lethal force, the group predicts that fully autonomous weapons could be developed within decades that select and engage targets with no human intervention.

Tuesday's tests show the trend toward greater autonomy "is not one that is going to be stopped," said Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch.

A Navy X-47B drone does a fly buy the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush after it was launched off the coast of Virginia, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The plane isn't intended for operational use, but it will be used to help develop other unmanned, carrier-based aircraft. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

"For us, the question is where do you draw line?" Goose said. "We're saying you need to draw the line when you have a fully autonomous system that is weaponized. We're saying you must have meaningful human control over key battlefield decisions of who lives and who dies. That should not be left up to the weapons system itself."

The Department of Defense issued a directive last year that said it would not pursue fully autonomous weapons, at least for the next few years. The U.S. is the only country with such a directive, Goose said.

Northrop Grumman test pilots, Dave Lorenz, of Md., center, Md., and Bruce McFadden, left, of Md., prepare to taxi the Navy X-47B drone to be launched off the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush off the coast of Virginia, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Before the planes can become commonplace, however, the military has to prove they can operate in the harsh conditions aboard an aircraft carrier at sea. The aircraft used a steam catapult to launch, just like a traditional Navy warplane does.

"These are exciting times for the Navy as we are truly doing something that has never been done before—something I never imagined could be done during my 29-year naval career," Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the Navy's program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, wrote in a Monday blog post.

In this image provided by the U.S. Navy an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator is towed Monday, May 13, 2013 into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush. The carrier is scheduled to be the first aircraft carrier to catapult-launch an unmanned aircraft from its flight deck Tuesday May 14, 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication (AP Photo/US Navy, Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter)

In this image provided by the U.S. Navy an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator is loaded onto the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush on Monday May 6, 2013 in Norfolk, Va. The George H.W. Bush is scheduled to be the first aircraft carrier to catapult launch an unmanned aircraft from its flight deck on Tuesday May 14, 2013. (AP Photo/US Navy, Seaman Joshua P. Card)

While the tailless plane won't land on the aircraft carrier on Tuesday, the Navy plans to conduct those tests soon. Landing on a moving aircraft carrier is considered one of the most difficult challenges Navy pilots face. Following the test launch, the plane will make a series of approaches toward the before landing at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.

Earlier this month, the Navy successfully conducted a landing at that air station where the X-47B used a tailhook on the aircraft to catch a cable and suddenly stop, just as planes landing on carriers have to do.

In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, Dave Lorenz, a Northrop Grumman deck operator, drives an X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator using an arm-mounted controller on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush Friday May 10, 2013. The George H.W. Bush is scheduled to be the first aircraft carrier to catapult launch an unmanned aircraft from its flight deck Tuesday May 14, 2013. (AP Photo/US Navy, Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter)

In the 2014 fiscal year, the Navy plans to demonstrate that the X-47B can be refueled in flight. The program cost is $1.4 billion over eight years. Northrop Grumman was awarded the primary contract in 2007.

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TheGhostofOtto1923
1.8 / 5 (5) May 14, 2013
"Some critics have said the military's use of drones, furthered by Tuesday's tests, create concerns over the development of systems that could become weaponized and have less and less human control over launching attacks."

-Well sure. Human judgement is notoriously undependable in stressful combat situations. Machines can be programmed with all the common sense and morality of people at their best, and are not subject to emotion, pain, or confusion which affects the common soldier on the battlefield.

Machines can be counted on as a more humane way of killing the enemy and destroying infrastructure. Honor? Naw that went out when sparta bitchslapped athens. Winning is everything.
Ophelia
3.7 / 5 (3) May 14, 2013
There has been increasing pushback against the use of drones from some nations that say the strikes cause widespread civilian deaths ...

I really do wish people would study some statistics before making such statements. In WWI, civilian deaths amounted to ~45% of all casualties. In WWII, it was well over 50%; in Viet Nam - who knows - but it was probably way over 50% also.

Civilians die in war. It is an unfortunate fact that should be considered when starting one. But to think that civilans would be better off using a high altitude bomber to drop bombs willy-nilly all over the place rather than a weapon that has at least some targeting ability with an intent of avoiding civilian casualties is nonsense.

Friendly fire also kills lots of soldiers: "There have been many thousands of friendly fire incidents in recorded military history...accounting for an estimated 2% to 20% of all casualties in battle" wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendly_fire.
Ophelia
not rated yet May 14, 2013
I should clarify that civilian deaths discussed in my post above relate to the percentage of all deaths and not casualties. Sorry for the mixup there.
gwrede
1.7 / 5 (6) May 14, 2013
Seems the first thing true autonomous robots will be used for is killing people. I don't think Asimov would approve.
Ober
3 / 5 (4) May 14, 2013
I wish the group that wants to ban or limit autonomous drones, would also acknowledge the deaths of innocent civilians caused by terrorism too!!!!!!!! Remember we are building these machines to COMBAT terrorism. So if you include the WHOLE SYSTEM here, then think of these machines as reducing innocent civilian deaths, by eliminating terrorists.
Of course no drone will be left to it's own devices to kill willy nilly. There will always be human operators watching over the system. Autonomous just means it can do it by itself, QUICKER and more accurate, NOT that there are no humans watching over it. If the machine goes crazy, humans will intervene.
People need to stop watching terminator movies, and get with reality!!!!!

Ohh and I don't think Asimov would have approved of 9/11 either!!!!!
baudrunner
2.6 / 5 (5) May 14, 2013
Human Rights Watch has called for a pre-emptive prohibition of the development and use of any unmanned systems that carry weapons and are fully autonomous.
Oh, I see. But generally speaking, war is okay otherwise?

Unfortunately, history teaches us that morality doesn't enter into warfare. What history teaches us is that all is fair in love and war.

Groups like Human Rights Watch can be conceived to be counter-productive to winning a war, were we to take heed of their words in certain times of crisis.
Aloken
not rated yet May 14, 2013
So we still have people around who believe fighting terrorism is a valid reason to do something? Weapons development has existed WAY before terrorism, really, its as old as mankind itself and our reasons to develop better weapons never changed since the day we pointed them at each other. The groups trying to ban drones should consider how far their ban will reach, if they can't pull off a worldwide ban it's no good, other nations will keep working on drones and gain an advantage. You won't get anywhere if all you can think about is the "here and now", think ahead, plan and prepare.
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (3) May 15, 2013
But to think that civilans would be better off using a high altitude bomber to drop bombs willy-nilly all over the place rather than a weapon that has at least some targeting ability with an intent of avoiding civilian casualties is nonsense.

In the Iraq war it was 30 civilians per soldier killed. More advanced weapons tech doesn't seem to do much for the proection of civilian population.

Remember we are building these machines to COMBAT terrorism

And therein lies the mistake. Machines are tools. They can be used equally by those we declare 'terrorists' as by us. Drones will not solve the terrorism issue. Thinking that by killing terrorists you decrease terrorism is naive.

Every time you kill a 'terrorist' you have killed a father, brother, spouse, friend, etc. - making them all the more likley to hate you and become terrorists themselves (doubly so if you miss and hit civilians). Unless you plan on genocide you can't win a 'war' on terror. Not with weapons at least
EyeNStein
3 / 5 (6) May 15, 2013
Remote (un) manned aircraft is a natural evolution of air combat. The pilot is in a virtual cockpit, safe and less stressed and no subject to manoeuvring forces. The planes can undertake higher 'g' turns against manned aircraft. The crew and life support systems weight can be added to weapons payload.
As for autonomy: ALS systems can already make safer aircraft landings under normal circumstances. Multiple target designation on an Apache helicopter already does most of the precise targeting and weapon control. Fighter aircraft are unstable in flight by design (for extra manoeuvrability) and rely on IT to interpret the pilots intentions and move the aircraft.
Agreed, it is not desirable for the human to be taken out of the Kill equation. But the next most likely step will be autonomous 'smart' target selection only requiring a confirm and authorise from the human pilot.
Its efficient and effective but produces a chilling kill ratio which will please the pentagon no end.
antialias_physorg
3.2 / 5 (5) May 15, 2013
Remote (un) manned aircraft is a natural evolution of air combat.

Unmanned is one thing (though that is already problematic as it removes the human killing agent even further from the victims - making him even less likely to balk at questionable orders. That's also the reason why the military likes to use abstract symbols that have no connection to the actual form of the target, BTW)

But in a (future) battlefield situation ECM-warfare is likely to make any remote control difficult. What this is moving towards is drones that can make fire/no-fire decisions without any form of feedback from commanders. And that one is REALLY problematic.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) May 15, 2013
Unfortunately, history teaches us that morality doesn't enter into warfare. What history teaches us is that all is fair in love and war
Defending oneself, ones family, and ones culture by force is moral. This is tribalism - internal altruism in conjunction with external animosity. Winning is of course everything.
drones that can make fire/no-fire decisions without any form of feedback from commanders
No, drones will be programmed to act as commanders would on their best behavior.

AI will be consistent, dependable, and trustworthy all of the time. Humans are none of these things all of the time.

Lt Calley was none of these things at Mai Lai. Machines would not have allowed that to happen because they would be programmed to prevent it.