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Navy to launch unmanned aircraft from carrier

Brock Vergakis, Associated Press

ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH (AP) -- The Navy will make its first attempt to launch an unmanned aircraft the size of a fighter jet from an aircraft carrier on Tuesday, marking a significant step toward the possibility of expanded drone use in future conflicts.

The X-47B can reach an altitude of more than 40,000 feet, has a range of more than 2,100 nautical miles and can reach high subsonic speeds. It is also fully autonomous in flight. It relies on computer programs to tell it where it to go unless a mission operator needs to step in. That differs from other drones used by the military, where someone directs the plane from a remote location.

While this aircraft isn't intended for operational use, the military is using the information it gathers during these demonstrations to develop other unmanned, carrier-based planes.

Having a carrier-based drone is considered particularly valuable because it can be deployed around the world without needing the permission of other countries to serve as a home base. There has been pushback against the use of drones from some nations that say the strikes erode the U.S. image overseas. Navy officials say the planes will provide around-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and targeting capabilities.

Some critics have said the military's use of drones, furthered by Tuesday's tests, create concerns over their limited human oversight. They worry the next step will be granting the drones control over launching attacks.

Human Rights Watch called for a pre-emptive prohibition of their development and use in a report issued in November titled "Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots."

While current models retain some level of supervision over decisions whether to use lethal force, the group predicts that fully autonomous weapons could be developed within decades that select and engage targets with no human intervention.

"Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic believe that such revolutionary weapons would not be consistent with international humanitarian law and would increase the risk of death or injury to civilians during armed conflict," the report said.

Before the planes become commonplace, however, the military has to prove they planes can operate in the harsh conditions aboard an aircraft carrier at sea. The aircraft is set to taxi on the flight deck of the USS George H.W. Bush while it is in the Atlantic Ocean and use a steam catapult to launch, just like a traditional Navy warplane does.

"These are exciting times for the Navy as we are truly doing something that has never been done before — something I never imagined could be done during my 29-year naval career," Rear Adm. Mat Winter, the Navy's program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, wrote in a Monday blog post.

While the tailless plane won't land on the aircraft carrier on Tuesday, the Navy plans to conduct those tests soon. Landing on a moving aircraft carrier is considered one of the most difficult challenges Navy pilots face. Following the test launch, the plane will make a series of approaches toward the aircraft carrier before landing at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.

Earlier this month, the Navy successfully conducted a landing at that air station where the X-47B used a tailhook on the aircraft to catch a cable and suddenly stop, just as planes landing on carriers have to do.

In the 2014 fiscal year, the Navy plans to demonstrate that the X-47B can be refueled in flight. The program cost is $1.4 billion over eight years. Northrop Grumman Corp. was awarded the primary contract in 2007.