The X-47B: Score one for the away team

It appears that the future of warfare will revolve around unmanned drones that are armed to the teeth, fighting wars for their human masters based on computerized algorithms. Not convinced? On July 10, the U.S. Navy landed the X-47B, the prototype for an unmanned, computer-controlled fighter plane, on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier located off the coast of Virginia. There was no pilot with a joystick controlling the drone – this was truly a robotic aircraft able to fly and land on its own, based on some earlier computerized algorithms.

This is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that the U.S. Navy was practically gushing about what a game-changer it was. In a prepared statement, the Secretary of the Navy noted, “It isn’t very often you get a glimpse of the future.” And kudos to them. They had just spent eight years and over $1.4 billion in funding, so it’s no wonder they talked about the X-47B as the future of robotic aviation. This is kid-at-Christmas excitement — that moment when they unwrap a wonderful toy. Except, in this case, that toy is a weapon capable of vanquishing all the other weapons on the block the next time they decide to play war.

Not only is this drone unmanned and capable of carrying a payload of bombs and missiles, it also sports a unique bat-winged configuration – “a giant stingray without a tail” – that makes it a perfect candidate to join the next generation of U.S. stealth fighter planes. The dimensions and capabilities of the X-47B are truly impressive: by the early 2020s, it is is supposed to be able to fly combat missions as far as 1,200 miles away totally unmanned. It should also be able to refuel in-air autonomously. (In fact, one could envision a scenario of one unmanned drone refueling another unmanned drone in mid-air while Navy sailors sleep peacefully below deck.) In the video of the X-47B landing on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush, there’s absolutely no way to determine that it was a robotic pilot making the carefully-orchestrated, perfectly-executed “tailhook” landing.

Imagine that – an unmanned fighter drone with considerably more wingspan than a conventional Predator, the lethal strike capability of a modern fighter jet, the computer brains of the world’s best fighter pilots, and total stealth impenetrability to an enemy’s radar defenses. This may be totally OTT for a place like Afghanistan, but think about what the X-47B could do in hotspots around the world.

Once the American public wakes up to what’s happening with our military’s push into unmanned drone warfare, one of two things will happen: they will either turn unmanned drones in the military into the target of huge protest similar to those against nukes during the Cold War … or they will applaud vigorously. Given how many people today grew up playing video games and thinking of technology as a modern cure-all, the latter scenario is probably more likely. Now that France, England, China and Russia appear to be working on their own versions of the X-47B unmanned stealth fighter, it will be hard to put the genie back into the bottle. The rest of the world isn’t going to sit idly by while the U.S. turns over its armed forces to assassin robots in the skies.

And that’s a scary prospect, isn’t it? The next generation of warfare will be played out like a global video game, with computer programmers as the new four-star generals. The only problem is, there will be no “reset” button if the game doesn’t play out as we hope it will — or if the machines decide they’d rather play another game.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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Emi Kolawole | July 10, 2013