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Video: The Navy’s X-47B drone reaches a new milestone

A U.S. Navy video from August 2014 shows testing of an unmanned aircraft aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. (Video courtesy U.S. Navy)

The Navy is still finalizing what it wants from a new armed aerial drone that will fly off aircraft carriers to perform a variety of missions. As noted earlier this month on Breaking Defense, among others, the big argument is whether the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike aircraft will be designed primarily to launch strikes or conduct surveillance missions. And it appears to be slowing down the project.

While the defense industry waits for the Navy to release details for the UCLASS drone, a separate but related drone, the X-47B, continues to undergo testing. The latest step: On Sunday, it was launched from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier, alongside an F/A-18E Super Hornet in the Atlantic Ocean. Navy officials hailed it as the first successful integration of carrier-based drones and fighter jets — something the service must get right in order to integrate the two in the future.

As Checkpoint covered previously, the 44,000-pound first landed on a carrier — the USS George H.W. Bush — last summer. The X-47B is seen by many as a precursor to the even larger UCLASS fleet of aircraft. But as the debate continues to rage over how large the Pentagon can afford to make the UCLASS drone, some analysts argue that the Navy can’t afford to cut corners in making it lethal.

The more weapons and technology that are added to the next generation of drones, the more expensive they will be. That’s politically difficult in an era where the Defense Department faces close scrutiny over its budget.

The specifications for the UCLASS drone are expected to be released within weeks.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.

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