Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Navy's Best Run Program

Regular readers of this blog know that ComNavOps is often highly critical of Navy leadership and with good reason.  The litany of failed and failing programs and policies is a long one.  That said, I’d now like to take the opportunity to examine what appears to be a well run program, the X-47B unmanned carrier aircraft.  It’s as if someone in Navy leadership looked at all the mistakes of the LCS/LPD/JSF and decided not to repeat them!

To summarize briefly, the X-47B is the first step in development of an unmanned and largely autonomous carrier aircraft capable of surveillance, strike, and perhaps someday aerial combat.  It's been referred to as the UCAV or UCLASS for those more familiar with those abbreviations.

X-47B - Doing It The Right Way

Unlike the LCS which the Navy committed to replacing a third of its battle fleet with before the first one was even completed, the X-47B is being developed slowly and deliberately with no commitment beyond a few prototypes.  Consider the developmental timeline.  The Navy awarded a six year contract to Northrop Grumman in 2007 to produce two prototypes.  Six years!  Only two prototypes!  That’s a careful, methodical program being executed responsibly.  Again, unlike the LCS which committed to production before any of the requisite technologies had been proven (and they all failed miserably), the X-47B is methodically going about proving its technologies at the prototype stage.  Autonomous aerial refueling, carrier launches and recovery, control software, carrier integration, and so forth are being tested and proven now, before any commitment to production runs.  If and when production occurs the aircraft will be a well known commodity with clearly recognized capabilities and limitations. 

We’ve all commented that the prudent course of LCS development would have been to develop the modules first, using surrogate platforms.  If and when the modules were deemed ready for production the LCS itself could have been built in short order.  In fact, this is exactly what is being done with the X-47B.  For example, the control software needed to perform unmanned carrier landings is being tested using a surrogate Beech King Air aircraft. 

Refreshingly, the X-47B program is not being overhyped and oversold.  Its goals are not magical, fantasy wish lists that can never happen but, instead, are short term, achievable goals that will eventually lead to the desired end product.  Even in the worst case, if it turns out that the ultimate X-47B functionality can’t be achieved, the Navy will not have mortgaged a third of its aerial combat power.  Nothing will have been lost or wasted except for a relatively small amount of research funding.

I tell you, it feels good to be able to praise a Navy program.  Sadly, I have no idea who’s responsible for this mature and common sense approach but they deserve some recognition.  Honestly, this is the best run program in the Navy by a wide margin.


  1. It's a demonstration model. No one even knows what X-47 is going to do yet. Pretty hard to measure success or failure by that standard!

    I can think of a couple of other programs that have been successful with little to no fanfare. P-8A , BAMS, MH-60R, VA Class SSN.

    1. I think you just made my point! The LCS was an R&D (the first two LCSs were paid out of R&D funds rather than normal procurement) project that the Navy totally committed to before they had any idea what it could do (nothing as it turns out).

      The P-8 program certainly has ardent supporters and it might be my number two choice. BAMS is another UAV and I should say that all the UAV programs are being well run and I group them together in my mind. The MH-60R isn't really a program in the sense that it's anything new. It's just a rehash of an existing platform. The VA SSN is a poorly run program that the Navy does a good job of spinning. Look at the orignial target costs, the subsequent actual runaway costs, and the way the Navy patted itself on the back for bringing the costs back to only $0.5-1.0B over budget.

    2. True, everything looks good compared to LCS! But my point really was that the more successful programs have been evolutionary vice revolutionary.

      - MH-60R is an amalgamation of SH-60F and SH-60B LAMPS and is apparently a very good ASW helo.

      - P-8A was just taking the most modern P-3 AIP mission system and putting it inside a modified 737. Seems to be going well.

      - BAMS is just a navalized Global Hawk. Navy learned a lot on Air Force use of that platform.


  2. I'd add meant to add the EA-18G Growler that list.

    The above are all common sense, evolutionary designs which by and large are meeting their requirement, being fielded on time, and within budget. The first BAMS squadron is standing up this year and will change ISR for Navy in a big way.

    To me, X-47 is interesting, but not compelling. It's just an R&D platform which the Navy is milking for a lot of media attention.

  3. I believe the X-47 could be a real game-changer if secure and reliable communication can be made to work. Everything else: autopilot, stealth, aerial refueling, weapons, are relatively straightforward developments from manned flight.

    Predators and Reapers have not been as critical to American war-fighting as future carrier-based UCAVs will be. While drones today have reduced land-based manned aircraft in benign airspace since 9/11, the X-47 will entirely shoulder the burden of long-range strike that previously belonged to the A-3,A-5,and A-6. Very important in a A2/AD environment.

    It's interesting that the USAF X-45 program was canned as quickly as it was. If it was still around we might have seen a faster pace of testing with both UCAVs leveraging off each other.

    But the USAF is run by pilots.


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