back to article US Navy robot war-jet refuels in air: But Mav and Iceman are going down fighting

A US Navy X-47B unmanned aircraft demonstrator has successfully carried out air-to-air refuelling from a tanker, the last of the feats the X-47B project was intended to accomplish. The two robot jets will now be retired, either to museums or the Pentagon's famous desert aircraft boneyard in Arizona. The test took place …

  1. This post has been deleted by its author

  2. James 51

    When another nation can keep a man fighter or bomber out or shoot them down for a fraction of the cost it will be too late. There could always a c&c plane a few miles behind.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    At some point meatbag drivers won't be competitive with unmanned high performance interceptors with solid state drivers. Partly this hasn't happened yet because the basic airframes are design limited to match the meatbags, so adding a more durable driver doesn't improve performance much.

    Practically no one outside the US is spending on new and novel military hardware; between blatantly copying the US hardware (that's you Russia and China) and just evolving in baby steps (Europe, no money there), and the US hardware being constrained by meatbags holding the purse strings, the future of meatbag drivers is safe forever*.

    The future is Cyberdynesque Terminators directed by Skynet. Nothing new here, movie has already been released. Please move along following the Soylent Green line.

    * forever is defined as the active force lifespan of the meatbag. Once they retire, they are just dead weight on the military system by consuming pensions which could better be used to buy bullets.

  4. HildyJ Silver badge

    This is what happens when you let the inmates run the asylum; especially when the right wing treats the inmates' pronouncements as gospel and gives them nearly unlimited funds. Drones are or can be faster and more maneuverable. Logistically they are smaller, lighter, less complicated to maintain, and more fuel efficient. And they're cheaper, not to mention safer for pilots. The only thing they aren't is heroic and heroic is how the military sells itself.

    1. Chestislav Achterkamp

      No quite, drones are not as reliable, nor are they as good at adapting to changing situations. And with the UN stating that developing killer robots should not be done, you have to have a human in the loop for fire control, meaning that the critical reaction time is far increased, making drones less accurate. That might not matter right now, due to the choice of munitions(anti armor weapons against soft targets?), but should the selectivity of drones increase, that timing will be critical for averting as much collateral damage as possible. Drones are also not as secure, pilots cannot be hacked mid flight by an enemy programmer.

      Drones are not bad, but neither are they going to make pilots become obsolete.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        >No quite, drones are not as reliable, nor are they as good at adapting to changing situations.

        Why shouldn't they be more reliable, and they can certainly have higher performance - no G-force intolerant pilot with slow human speed reactions and pilot error, no heavy cockpit with its instruments and equipment, pilot, 150 lb ejector seat, etc no compromising the aerodynamics to ensure that the pilot has a good all-round view.

        But the most important benefit is that robots don't have grieving relatives. The public care when aircrew are killed. Only accountants care about robots.

      2. Aitor 1 Silver badge

        UN rules?

        Since when has that been a problem for the us military?

        UCAVs are cheaper to run, and can have way more capabilities than piloted planes, for clear reasons.

        The only problem is the meatballs run the show and refuse to allow the UCAVs to take their roles.

      3. Gigabob

        I your view reflect short term outlook. Will pilots be essential for the next decade - yes. The following decade, perhaps. The decade after that - no way.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    (Information) Highway to the Danger Zone?

    Definitely doesn't sound as butch as the original.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Jobs first, War second

    If anyone ever wants to wage war against the US, all they have to understand about American military doctrine can be learned from this kind of decision.

    The fact that the military purposefully mothballs a transformational weapon like this because it puts certain people out of a 'job', basically amounts to treason. The military's mission is to defend the country, not to run a welfare program.

    The field is wide open for a non-retarded country to take this technology and apply it correctly. A small drone carrier could keep a squadron of armed drones on station 24/7 for weeks at a time with a very small maintenance crew, and because of automation could develop incredibly powerful, precise, and economical battle doctrines.

    The NSA is being run by a Navy admiral, so you can be sure decisions like this are being made all day long in the cyber-war department. If there were a tool that could help fight network war but threatened their budget, it would be buried, as long as they can keep thousands of hackers warming their seats.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is the Catch 22

    The problem as the forces look at it is this:

    1 - Bring UAV's properly into service, completely automating the combat and even peace-time roles required of an aircraft and you:

    - Lose jobs

    - Lose kudos

    - Lose command and control among the other services

    - Lose funding

    at the expense of:

    - Saving lives

    There will always be people willing to volunteer, so saving lives isn't a priority. Keeping their position in the military hierarchy and keeping their budgets is.

    2 - Don't fully automate your war and peace capabilities

    - Keep people in the seat

    - Keep kudos

    - Keep funding

    - Keep that position in the hierarchy

    at the expense of:

    - Risking your deployment capabilities as sending manned aircraft or even manned ships becomes more and more hazardous and a riskier decision and losing your position in the hierarchy.

    The Navy pushed it because as stated, it kept them in a role, but realistically, there is very little reason as to why a fully automated carrier couldn't deploy with fully automated aircraft.

    It would be a lot smaller, a lot cheaper and a lot safer. Then however, the Navy just becomes joystick jockeys and could be manned by a team of thirty. There would of course be massive maint crews, but that would probably get outsourced.

  8. Jim O'Reilly

    It takes a real pilot.......!

    A few years back a comparison of drone crashes showed a big disparity between the Air Force and the army. Turned out the Air Force used pilots, who flew the drones, while the Army used youngsters fresh from the XBox. The pilots had to land the drones themselves, while the kids used a push-button auto-land feature.

    The rules haven't changed in 5 years, and highly trained, highly-paid pilots still crash drones. Oh, and they get flight pay while droning! And Army privates earn less than 30 percent of a pilot's base pay.

    Does that sound stupid? Never underestimate the pushback old aviators can exert. It needs politicians to apply some serious common-sense.

    1. Captain DaFt

      Re: It takes a real pilot.......!

      "It needs politicians to apply some serious common-sense."

      That was one Hell of a punch line!

      Jim, you should give up the day job, because you definitely have a talent for comedy writing!

  9. Ugotta B. Kiddingme

    one wonders

    if, after the successful refueling, the controller thought to say "our compliments to the [X-47B] and regards to Captain Dunsel" (19:30 mark of video for source reference).

    I find it fascinating that this very thing and the very same reactions were forecast 48 years ago in a sci-fi television show (along with a particularly stern warning about the potential consequences).

  10. Stevie Silver badge


    While conceding that the authors have years of experience at the pointy end of military actions and equipment, soldiers to carry out same, I can't help remembering when people speak of this or that technology making human participation unnecessary how various technologies were going to make the infantryman obsolete in almost every decade I've lived through (five point nine so far), and yet thousands of boots hit the dirt every time we go to war.

    Could a remotely piloted drone really dogfight a human-in-the-cockpit opponent? It sounds a bit far-fetched. But then, so would have carrying around a roomful of transistors on my wrist when I was born.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Bah!

      There's different aspects to war. However to take and hold territory, means troops go in harm's way. No drone will ever be able to do that job as it's so multi-faceted. There's more to war then killing and the guys on the ground know this and practice it.

    2. bep

      Re: Bah!

      "and yet thousands of boots hit the dirt every time we go to war."

      Actually the battlefield has been emptying for centuries. Compare the armies at Waterloo to the armies in Iraq. There is still a need for boots on the ground, but far more of them are now in support positions. In any case this has little to do with manned versus unmanned aircraft. The question has to be asked, if we know the F35 is going to be last manned fighter, does anyone actually need the F35? The delays and cost overruns aren't helping that particular program.

  11. Gringo

    The one good thing about Establishment opposition to drones

    "The field is wide open for a non-retarded country to take this technology and apply it correctly. A small drone carrier could keep a squadron of armed drones on station 24/7 for weeks at a time with a very small maintenance crew, and because of automation could develop incredibly powerful, precise, and economical battle doctrines."

    The problem is that this puts a lot of fire-power in the hands of very few people. Currently if someone wants to hold a military coup, they have to get massive buy in from the rank and file. In the US, all troops from all branches of service take an oath, which most take very seriously, against interfering with the duly elected government.

    With a large and effective drone force, relatively few conspirators could seize control of the military and use it to either overthrow the Govt. or oppress the people and establish a military dictatorship.

    The problem with drone technology is can be a massive force multiplier. It cares not for who is controlling it, and eliminates the human factor from military action enabling atrocities that if ordered to human troops would result in mutiny.

  12. PhilipN Silver badge


    Heaven forbid, but I for one would feel comforted knowing that our front line combatants are able to stay awake for more than 12 hours.

    Maybe it's time to automate the frigging carriers!


    Pros and Cons


    With drones you do not need to fight manned aircraft in a dogfight. Being smaller you will be hard to detect. If you send some drones with BVI fire and forget missiles you do not require dogfighting. You can send out more units and accept higher loses. Assuming you exchange 10 drones for each manned figher, you are still winning.


    The problem is comms. If you are running large numbers and lots of video feeds, you will fill the bandwidth. Plus if you want to be stealthy, you do not want to transmitting much power. Which means jamming or hacking is a defence. However if the drone is for local army actions you do not have this problem. Sorry navy.

    Manned planes also have a issue. In general the priority is to not leave the pilot behind. Dead is often an acceptable risk. Prisonner is a big no-no.

    Assuming you want a AWAC, or far out carrier protection, you would not just have a drone. You can not turn a straying russian plane approaching British airspace in the with a drone. While missiles now have largely removed the heavy bomber role, they left the ground support role. A mix will develope.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Navy sees reality, the Air Force will have it forced on them

    Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus stated a few days ago that the F35 would be the last manned fighter jet the Navy would ever buy, that unmanned is the future.

    I'm sure the Air Force would disagree if asked today, but economics will force them to that conclusion down the road. Congress won't pay for another manned fighter jet program after the F35 because the US Air Force would be the only customer in the world for it, making it cost too much.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Don't kid yourself...

    ...there are many tasks that robotic aerial devices are unable to do that require manned aircraft. That may someday change but it's a long, long ways off. UAVs are good for saving lives and equipment but they are no a replacement for manned aircraft including fighter jets/pilots.

  16. boba1l0s2k9

    Be skeptical

    I'm surprised by the level of credulity in this thread. The US military announces that an experimental drone program goes really well and they're shutting it down...and you believe them? Chances are high this program is being "shut down" so it can be come a black program.

  17. Jan 0 Silver badge

    Aircraft carrier?

    Just how long will an aircraft carrier survive in a automated war?

    Large warships are already vulnerable to attack by small boats.

    What chance will they have against swarms of high speed autonomous surface or submarine craft?

  18. lee harvey osmond

    Dr Strangelove clip

    Noting that the clip in the article shows USAF in-flight refuelling; the steerable-boom system they devised for strategic bombers rather the probe-and-drogue running-fuck-at-a-rolling-donut scheme used by the rest of NATO.

    Noting also all the folks suggesting that in the future such-and-such a military system will not be able to exist because of enemies shooting at it. I think mostly in the future the problem will be mostly logistics, not tactics; the biggest single problem anyone will face will be the remoteness of the area of interest from the nearest available base, and having technology-demonstrator UAVs show they can complete in-flight refuelling evolutions is thought-provoking.

  19. Extra spicey vindaloo

    Back in the Vietnam war, the F4's didn't have guns because Missiles were all you needed.

    Unless these drones can be completely automated, cyberdyne style, someone will figure out how to jam the comms and make them completely useless.

    "No plan survives contact with the enemy"

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Drones CAN be automated

      and have similar capabilities to humans.

      It doesn't mean they are self aware or anything: it just means they can pick the queues, etc, and change the plan to avoid risky flight paths, SAMs, and pick up secondary targets.

      They way a human pilot chooses a target is the result of training. You can put those same rules in the UCAV. It has proven to be difficult, but today it is a reality. A reality that we refuse to use, for political reasons.

      Politicians (and that includes Admirals, they ARE politicians) can delay it, but won't stop it.

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