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U.S. launches drone from aircraft carrier

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 9:55 p.m. MDT

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) (Associated Press) 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) (Associated Press)

ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH — A drone the size of a fighter jet took off from the deck of an American aircraft carrier for the first time Tuesday in a test flight that could eventually open the way for the U.S. to launch unmanned aircraft from just about any place in the world.

The X-47B is the first drone designed to take off and land on a carrier, meaning the U.S. military would not need permission from other countries to use their bases.

"As our access to overseas ports, forward operating locations and airspace is diminished around the world, the value of the aircraft carrier and the air wing becomes more and more important," Rear Adm. Ted Branch, commander of Naval Air Forces Atlantic, said after the flight off the Virginia coast. "So today is history."

The move to expand the capabilities of the nation's drones comes amid growing criticism of America's use of Predators and Reapers to gather intelligence and carry out lethal missile attacks against terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 file photo, Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf is reflected on a table as he speaks about the office's annual Budget and Economic Outlook during a news conference at the Ford House Office Building in Washington. A Congressional Budget Office study released Tuesday May 14, 2013 cites higher tax revenues and better-than-expected payments from government-controlled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as the key reasons for this year's improved outlook.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) (Associated Press) FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 file photo, Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf is reflected on a table as he speaks about the office's annual Budget and Economic Outlook during a news conference at the Ford House Office Building in Washington. A Congressional Budget Office study released Tuesday May 14, 2013 cites higher tax revenues and better-than-expected payments from government-controlled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as the key reasons for this year's improved outlook. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) (Associated Press)

Critics in the U.S. and abroad have charged that drone strikes cause widespread civilian deaths and are conducted with inadequate oversight.

Still, defense analysts say drones are the future of warfare.

The new Joint Strike Fighter jet "might be the last manned fighter the U.S. ever builds. They're so expensive, they're so complex, and you put a human at risk every time it takes off from a carrier," said James Lewis, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"This is the next generation of military technology — the unmanned vehicles, the unmanned submersibles, the unmanned aircraft. This will be the future of warfare, and it will be a warfare that is a little less risky for humans but maybe a little more effective when it comes to delivering weapons and effect."

While the X-47B isn't intended for operational use, it will help Navy officials develop future carrier-based drones. Those drones could begin operating by 2020, according to Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the Navy's program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons.

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) (Associated Press) 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) (Associated Press)

The X-47B is far bigger than the Predator, has three times the range and can be programmed to carry out missions with no human intervention, the Navy said.

While the X-47B isn't a stealth aircraft, it was designed with the low profile of one. That will help in the development of future stealth drones, which would be valuable as the military changes its focus from the Middle East to the Pacific, where a number of countries' air defenses are a lot stronger than Afghanistan's.

"Unmanned systems would be the likely choice in a theater or an environment that was highly defended or dangerous where we wouldn't want to send manned aircraft," Branch said.

During Tuesday's flight, the X-47B used a steam catapult to launch, just as traditional Navy warplanes do. The unarmed aircraft then made two low approaches toward the aircraft carrier as it if was going to land, before being waved off and returning to a higher altitude. The jet then landed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland about an hour later.

Traders gather at the post of specialist Ronnie Howard, center, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Monday, April 29, 2013. Enthusiasm on Wall Street sparked by another positive report on the U.S. economy helped push most Asian stock markets higher Wednesday May 15, 2013. But lower-than-expected German economic growth disappointed investors elsewhere. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) (Associated Press) Traders gather at the post of specialist Ronnie Howard, center, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Monday, April 29, 2013. Enthusiasm on Wall Street sparked by another positive report on the U.S. economy helped push most Asian stock markets higher Wednesday May 15, 2013. But lower-than-expected German economic growth disappointed investors elsewhere. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) (Associated Press)

The next critical test for the tailless plane will come this summer, when it attempts to land on a moving aircraft carrier, one of the most difficult tasks for Navy pilots.

Earlier this month, the X-47B successfully landed at the air station using a tailhook to catch a cable and bring it to a quick stop, just as planes setting down on carriers have to do.

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