The U.S. military has been using unmanned drones for years now as reconnaissance vehicles and in some cases to attack targets with missiles once they are found. The drone programs like the Predator have been a great success for the Air Force and the military is looking to a future fighting force that relies heavily on unmanned aircraft. With the last of the Predator drones set for delivery next month, its Reaper replacement is already online. Reaper was designed from the ground up to carry weapons unlike the Predator that gained weapons as an afterthought.
Now, the U.S. Navy’s X-47B unmanned strike fighter that is set to take its first flight soon. The aircraft was built by Northrop Grumman and will be a carrier-based unmanned attack aircraft. The X47-B has been performing taxi tests for several weeks at Edwards Air Force base in California as the aircraft is put through the tests required before it takes to the skies for the first time.
Officials overseeing the X-47B test program had hoped to have the first flight by the middle of the month but poor weather and other factors prevented that test. The officials still hope the flight will happen before the end of the year. A pair of X-47B aircraft was constructed under a development contract granted in 2007 reports Defense News. Initial plans for the unmanned fighters called for the aircraft to have flown in late 2009 and to have at-sea trials held in early 2011. The aircraft is significantly behind that original schedule.
The X-47B looks like a smaller version of the B-2 stealth bomber, has a 62-foot wingspan, and is 38-feet long. The aircraft can carry 4,500 pounds of weapons at high subsonic speeds with a range of about 2,100 miles. The aircraft can operate at up to 40,000 feet and stay aloft for six hours per tank of fuel. The X-47B will be capable of automated aerial refueling.