The Navy landed a 44,000-pound drone aircraft on the USS George H.W. Bush for the first time last summer, a technical feat that was hailed by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus at the time as a historic development in a program that would “radically change the way presence and combat power are delivered from aircraft carriers.” And indeed, the bat-winged X-47B remains intriguing: Flown by the click of a computer mouse, it would offer surveillance and reconnaissance of broad swathes of the ocean, and — unlike typical drones — refuel in the air when needed.
The X-47B is seen by many as a precursor to an even larger fleet of drone aircraft that will be unlike anything the U.S. military has. Known as the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS), it calls for “persistent, aircraft carrier-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting, and strike capability to support carrier air wing operations,” according to the Navy. But its future is anything but certain: As USNI News and others have pointed out, there has been a spirited debate about just how much strike capability the UCLASS drones should have.
Arming it to the teeth would make it potent weapon for the Navy when it has to fly aircraft into contested airspace to take out enemy targets. Doing so could potentially reduce casualties in situations where U.S. fighter pilots might otherwise be shot down. But the more bells and whistles it has, the more expensive it becomes — not ideal in an era when the Pentagon is looking to cut costs.