A Chinese aviator, flying a Chinese made J-15 fighter, made the first night landing on a carrier. This is a remarkable achievement. These landings, called “night traps”, are considered the most difficult task any aviator can carry out, especially in rough weather. By early 2018 China had nearly 40 aviators qualified for daytime takeoffs and landings but apparently only one of them, so far, has mastered the night trap.
A Chinese aviator made the first daytime landing and takeoff from a Chinese aircraft carrier in November 2012. The first Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (CV-16) entered service in September 2012. This is a 65,000 ton, 305 meter (999 feet) long ship that had spent over a year on sea trials. During that time Liaoning was at sea for about four months. This was all in preparation for flight operations. In 2011 China confirmed that the Liaoning will primarily be a training carrier. The Chinese apparently plan to station up to 24 jet fighters and 26 helicopters on the Liaoning and use the ship to train pilots and other specialists for four or more additional carriers. A second Chinese carrier (CV-17) is an improved Liaoning, displaces 70,000 tons and will enter service by early 2019. CV-17 can carry 32 J-15s and ten helicopters. A third carrier, the 85,000 ton CV-18 is of a new design and under construction and expected to enter service in 2023. At that point, China will need at least 200 fully qualified (day and night operations) jet aircraft aviators to get the most out of their carrier force.
In 2007 the Chinese Navy Air Force began training carrier fighter pilots (or "aviators" as they are known in the navy). In the past Chinese navy fighter pilots went to Air Force fighter training schools, and then transferred to navy flight training schools to learn how to perform their specialized (over open water) missions. Now, operating from carriers and performing landings and take-offs at sea has been added to the navy fighter pilot curriculum. In 2011 the first class of carrier aviators finished a four-year training course at the Dalian Naval Academy. This included learning how to operate off a carrier, using a carrier deck mock-up on land. Landing on a moving ship at sea is another matter. The Russians warned China that it may take them a decade or more to develop the knowledge and skills needed to efficiently run an aircraft carrier, which includes obtaining enough qualified aviators. The Chinese are game and are slogging forward. The first landing and takeoff were apparently carried out in calm seas. It is a lot more difficult in rough weather (when the carrier is moving up and down and sideways a lot) and at night. Like the United States, Chinese aviators must be able to regularly perform night landings before they are fully qualified for carrier operations. For a carrier to be fully operational it needs more than one qualified aviator per jet (1.5 per aircraft is the U.S. standard). Thus CV-17 needs 40-50 qualified carrier pilots for its full complement of J-15s. It appears that CV-17 will probably enter service with a full complement of J-15s but not enough qualified aviators to operate them all at maximum capability.
China may try to speed up carrier aviator training by using software assisted landings. This would involve obtaining software similar to what the U.S. Navy has created for automated landings. Developing and perfecting such software could take a while although China could just steal it. The U.S. Navy developed such software because it is essential for its new carrier based UAVs like the MQ-25A. The Americans are also testing new software developed so carrier capable UAVs can be communicated with using the same software used for manned carrier aircraft. Called UMCS (Unmanned Carrier Aviation Mission Control System) this uses existing software modified to communicate with UAVs on the carrier deck as well as the air. The navy has already tested UAVs equipped with software for landing and taking off from a carrier as well as refueling other naval aircraft in flight. There is a growing library of combat tested UAV software for just about every aspect of aircraft operation. But operating from a carrier has always been the most difficult environment to work in.
While the navy has not selected the final design of the new carrier UAV it did decide, in July 2016 that its first carrier-based unmanned combat aircraft would be called the MQ-25A Stingray and it would enter service in the early 2020s. This UCAS (unmanned combat air system) decision comes after a decade of design, development and test flights.
The UAV that made the MQ-25A possible rolled out as the X-47B in 2008. This was the first carrier-based combat UAV, with a wingspan of 20 meters (62 feet, and the outer 25 percent folds up to save space on the carrier) and could stay in the air for up to twelve hours. The 20 ton X-47B weighs a little less than the 24 ton F-18A and has two internal bays holding two tons of smart bombs and missiles. It is a stealthy aircraft. As built the X-47B could be used for a lot of bombing missions, sort of a super-Reaper. The navy has been impressed with the U.S. Air Force success with the Predator and Reaper. But the propeller driven 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 built to operate more like a manned jet warplane.
X-47B development moved ahead pretty quickly with the first catapult launch from an aircraft carrier in May 2013 (and landed at a shore based facility). That was followed by several touch and go landings on a carrier. The first carrier landing, as expected, followed soon after. This was not a surprise because in 2011 the navy successfully tested its UCAV landing software using a manned F-18 that landed on a carrier completely under software control. This version of the software has been further expanded into a system that makes it a lot easier (and safer) for manned aircraft to land on carriers.
Meanwhile by the end of 2013 more flight tests further stressed the capabilities of the X-47B automatic landing system, especially in high speed and complex (different directions) winds. The autolanding software passed all these tests. The X-47B was also the first UAV to land and be off the carrier deck in less than 90 seconds, just like manned aircraft. There were a lot of other tests to see how effectively and reliably the X-47B could operate on the carrier and hanger deck and do it alongside manned aircraft. An X-47B carried out the first fully autonomous aerial refueling (with a manned with a KC-707 tanker) in April 2015. All this was part of a long-term navy plan to introduce an UCAS replacement for the F-35 (which is now replacing F-18s) in the 2030s. But if the UCAS progress continues to be swift and the costs low (compared to manned aircraft), the F-35 could find its production run reduced to make room for a cheaper and more capable UCAS.
While software controlled landing systems have been around for decades, landing on a moving airfield (an aircraft carrier) is considerably more complex than landing on a stationary airfield. Dealing with carrier landings required more powerful hardware and software aboard the aircraft. The navy expected some glitches and bugs but managed to rapidly match the reliability of commercial landing software within months rather than decades. The U.S. Army pioneered the use of automated landing (and take off) software for its larger UAVs and eventually, the air force adopted that approach as well which has been used very successfully on UAVs)
Rather than begin development on the slightly larger X-47C, which was originally the first naval UCAV to enter service, the navy decided to conduct a competition to find the most effective design for the MQ-25A UCLASS (unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike) aircraft. As expected the X-47B was successful enough to be one of the competing prototypes for the MQ-25A. It was always believed that the X-47C would be closer to 30 tons and have a payload of over four tons. The X-47B was never mean to be the definitive carrier UCAV, but the navy hoped it would be good enough to show that unmanned aircraft could do the job. Normally, "X" class aircraft are just used as technology demonstrators. As successful as it was in February 2015 the navy stated that the X-47B was too costly and insufficiently stealthy to become its carrier UCAV, and the two X-47Bs will be turned into museum exhibits upon completion of all flight testing in late 2015. Meanwhile, three firms (Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics) have submitted MQ-25A design proposals and there will be competitive flight testing for two or more proposals and a decision of a winner by the end of the decade.
The U.S. Navy has done the math and realized that they need UCASs on their carriers as soon as possible. The current plan is to get these aircraft into service by the 2020s. What drives this urgency is 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 a range greater than 800 kilometers. The MQ-25A UCAS has a range of at least 2,500 kilometers and is seen as the solution. But the MQ-25A can also refuel manned aircraft in the air and many carrier admirals see that as the solution to the range problem with manned warplanes. At the moment aerial refueling is seen as the primary mission for the MQ-25A, but that could change quickly and the MQ-25A is designed for that.
The leading contender to be the MQ-25A is the existing jet powered Avenger UAV. This aircraft was developed by the same firm (General Atomics) that created the Predator and Reaper. In 2012 the second prototype Sea Avenger made its first flight. This UAV is 14.2 meters (44 feet) long with a payload of 1.6 tons and 16 hours endurance. The U.S. Air Force was planning to use Avenger for reconnaissance and strike missions. The navy was impressed and particularly interested in using Avenger to replace the soon-to-be-retired EA-6Bs in their most dangerous attack missions. The air force liked the ability to arm Avenger with a smart bomb, including the 900 kg (2,000 pound) GBU-34 penetrator version. Avenger also has two hard points on each wing, each one able to carry up over 200 kg (440 pounds). The U.S. Navy has been interested in Avenger since the beginning of development. Thus the Avenger wings were originally designed so they can be built to fold for use on carriers and have a tail hook needed for carrier landings.
The Avenger was meant to operate from carriers. The Avenger uses landing gear from the F-5, an aircraft of the same weight class. The naval version is now called the Sea Avenger. The navy, and several air forces were initially looking at the Avenger as an ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft. The ability to carry a ton of sensors and stay in the air for twenty hours per sortie has a lot of appeal for an aircraft that is already stealthy and doesn't carry a pilot. Moreover, the Avenger can perform ELINT missions entirely autonomously, making it more difficult to detect.
A modified Sea Avenger has been offered as a candidate to be MQ-25A. General Atomics noted that their candidate is already flying while the other two are just design proposals. So if the navy needs MQ-25As in a hurry, there is one design that can do just that.
The U.S. Navy leadership is still divided on how fast to proceed with carrier UAVs, as can be seen as several changes already made to the MQ-25A design requirements. That will slow things down but the fear that China will get a carrier UAV into service first has proved to be a powerful motivator.
The U.S. Navy expects UAVs to replace most manned aircraft on carriers and the Chinese are aware of that. So the age of manned aircraft operating from Chinese carriers may be a short one. Chinese engineers are well aware of automatic pilot software and how it works. Now they will have feedback from Chinese carrier pilots and be able to do what the Americans have done.