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The US Navy is poised for an unmanned revolution. Last week, for the first time, it successfully catapulted an unmanned jet from an aircraft carrier. The launch of Northrop Grumman’s X-47B was part of a seven-year, $1.5 billion program to prove unmanned, high-performance planes can operate from carriers.
This summer, the X-47B will land on a moving ship. Both test planes will then be retired, and a new program born to field — within six years — unmanned, long-range, stealthy spy and strike planes.
Meanwhile, the naval version of Northrop’s Global Hawk long-range UAV, the Triton, will soon make its first maiden flight. The company’s unmanned Fire Scout helicopter is in limited service, as is Boeing’s ScanEagle drone.
But the X-47B’s successor will be key, fielding a stealthy spy plane that can operate globally without ground bases and give carriers the long-range strike capability they lack today. As the Navy struggles with budget cuts, stealthy, long-range unmanned systems must remain a top priority.