A growing number of major weapons manufacturing nations are designing and producing UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle). These nations have come to agree that unmanned aircraft are the future, including autonomous (at least some of the time, under software control) fighters and bombers. The major players in this field are currently China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. Most of the development and manufacturing has been in the United States, but the other six have over 200 UAVs designs in production or under development. China and Israel are the biggest players outside the United States. Israeli UAV manufacturers have long been leaders in the field and their own government is urging them to move more aggressively in this direction. Chinese firms are now offering a wide variety of UAV designs, many of them very similar to American and Israeli models. The Israelis, and several other nations, are also following the lead of the U.S. Navy, which is currently out front when it comes to UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) development. The Israelis see the UCAV as an area where they can compete with larger players like the United States and China. While the U.S. has the edge in combat experience, Israel is not far behind (given their extensive use of UAVs to battle terrorism). China has encouraged its aircraft manufacturers to do whatever it takes to build a market for Chinese UAVs. To help that the Chinese government offers cheap capital and lots of tech secrets pilfered by Chinese hackers. Russia is trying to work out cooperative development and manufacturing deals with Israel. India, Iran, Russia, and Turkey want to show they can do it. and for Iran this is a necessity because international arms sanctions cut them off from foreign suppliers.
China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia, and Turkey know they are playing catchup, with nearly all their 200 or so UAVs designed mainly for reconnaissance, not combat. Meanwhile, the U.S. has leaped ahead in developing UCAVs. This became very obvious in late 2012, when a U.S. Navy X-47B UCAV made its first catapult launch. This came 22 months after the first flight of the X-47B. This launch was not from a carrier but an airfield built to the same size as a carrier deck and equipped with a catapult. This first launch was to confirm that the X-47B could handle the stress of catapult use. Another X-47B was then loaded onto the deck of a carrier, to check out the ability of the UCAV to move around the deck. The first carrier launch of an X-47B took place in 2013, along with carrier landings. Back in 2011, the navy tested its UCAV landing software, using a manned F-18 for the test, landing it on a carrier completely under software control. In early 2013 an X-47B successfully made a landing on an airfield built to the same size as a carrier deck and equipped with a wire for the hook on the rear of the UCAV to catch on. That worked, and the X-47B came to a stop, as it would during a landing at sea. The navy has been hustling on many fronts for several years to get a UCAV that could take off and land on a carrier.
The navy rolled out the first X-47B, its first UCAV, in 2008. This compact aircraft has a wingspan of 20 meters (62 feet) and the outer 25 percent folds up to save space on the carrier. It carries a 2 ton payload and will be able to stay in the air for 12 hours. The U.S. is far ahead of other nations in UCAV development, and this is energizing activity in Israel, Russia, China, and others (especially in Europe) to develop similar aircraft. It’s generally recognized that robotic combat aircraft are the future, even though many of the aviation commanders (all of them pilots) wish it were otherwise. The Israeli Air Force is an exception to this, and all major air forces have a growing number of senior officers who accept that the day of the droids is fast approaching. Whoever gets there first (a UCAV that really works) will force everyone else to catch up or end up the loser if they encounter these UCAVs in combat.
The U.S. Navy was energized by the realization that they need UCAVS on their carriers as soon as possible in order for these ships to survive modern anti-ship weapons. The current plan is to get these aircraft into service by 2018. But many carrier admirals want unmanned carrier aircraft in service sooner than that. All this activity was triggered by the realization that American carriers had to get within 800 kilometers of their target before launching bomber aircraft. Potential enemies increasingly have aircraft and missiles with range greater than 800 kilometers. The navy already has a solution in development, since the X-47B UCAS has a range of 2,500 kilometers and all they have to do is get these UCAVs operational.
So anxious are the admirals to get UCAVs that for the last two years navy leadership has been seeking ways to reduce orders for the new F-35B and F-35C manned aircraft and use that money to buy the X-47Bs and similar robotic combat aircraft instead. The navy currently plans to buy 680 F-35B and F-35C aircraft for (on average) $100 million each. A UCAV costs less than half that and provides most of the same capabilities, plus a longer range and no risk of losing pilots.
For most of the last decade the navy has been hustling to ready a UCAV for carrier operations and combat use. Within a few years the navy expects 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 UCAVs aircraft perform ground attack missions as well, something the Predators have been doing for over a decade. The larger Reaper UAV was designed to expand this combat capability and has proved that it can replace F-16s and other bombers in the combat zone.
The 20 ton X-47B weighs a little less than the 24 ton F-18A and has 2 internal bays holding 2 tons of smart bombs. Once it can operate off a carrier regularly, 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 X-47B uses a F100-PW-220 engine, which is currently used in the F-16 and F-15 and is, in effect, a full size combat aircraft that cannot carry a pilot.
The U.S. Air Force has not come as far as the navy because the two services have always differed about how to use UAVs. When the air force agreed to work with the navy on UCAVs a decade ago the idea was that the air force ones would largely remain in storage, to provide a rapid "surge" capability in wartime. The navy, however, wanted to use theirs to replace manned aircraft on carriers. The reason is simple, carrier ops are dangerous and carrier qualified pilots are more difficult and expensive to train and retain in the service. The navy still has these problems, and senior admirals are pretty much in agreement that UCAVs are the future of carrier aviation. The sooner these UCAVs prove they can safely and effectively operate from carriers, the better. The X-47B (or planned, slightly larger, X-47C) is not the definitive carrier UCAV but the navy hopes it is good enough to show that unmanned aircraft can do the job. Normally, "X" class aircraft are just used as technology demonstrators. But the X-47 program has been going on for so long, and has incorporated so much from UAVs already serving in combat, that the X-47B may end up eventually running recon and bombing missions as the MQ-47B.
The Department of Defense leadership is backing the navy efforts and spurring the air force to catch up. At the moment, the air force has a hard time building enough MQ-9s, which are used as a ground support aircraft, in addition to reconnaissance and surveillance. But, as the navy is demonstrating, you can build UCAVs that can carry more weapons, stay in the air longer, and hustle to where they are needed faster.