The Navy converted manned combat jets into unmanned ones. Nobody had any idea they were doing it.
The U.S. Navy announced that it converted EA-18G Growler electronic attack jets into unmanned vehicles.
In a test, a manned Growler controlled two unmanned Growlers.
The previously unknown test could mean that unmanned Navy warplanes are coming sooner than experts thought.
In a surprise announcement, the U.S. Navy revealed on Tuesday that it had successfully flown tests involving unmanned versions of the EA-18G Growler electronic attack fighter. The tests involved a single manned EA-18G controlling two unmanned versions of the same aircraft, opening up the possibility that the U.S. Navy could fly armed unmanned aircraft sooner than originally thought.
The test, conducted by the U.S. Navy and Boeing, was undertaken by the U.S. Navy’s flight test wing at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. According to a C4ISRNET, a single EA-18G Growler controlled two unmanned Growlers in the air.
The test is notable for several reasons. One, the Navy was not known to be working on unmanned systems other than the MQ-25 Stingray, a future drone tanker set to join the fleet in the mid-2020s. Second, the ability to convert a manned fighter such as the EA-18G Growler into an unmanned aircraft was also previously unknown.
The EA-18G Growler is an electronic attack airplane. The EA-18 is based on the F/A-18F Super Hornet, has a crew of two, and is designed to escort Super Hornets on high risk air strikes. The Growler carries both a jamming pod designed to interfere with enemy radars and communications, preventing enemy air defenses from acquiring inbound aircraft and coordinating their attacks. The Growler also carries HARM anti-radar missiles, which detect the probing beams of enemy air defense radars and follow them to their source, destroying them. Without radars to guide them, many types of air defense missiles become unusable in combat.
The Growler’s electronic warfare mission is particularly high risk, placing the jet and its crew between the strike fighters it escorts and enemy missiles. That makes it a good candidate for the unmanned mission, where the loss of an aircraft won’t result in the loss of a crew.
X-47B landing on the aircraft carrier USS Bush, 2015.
The Growler and the Navy’s main strike fighter, the Super Hornet, share 90 percent of their parts and systems. This makes it simpler to maintain both aircraft and allows the Growler to keep up with Super Hornets on missions. It also likely means that the Super Hornet can be unmanned, and possibly controlled by other Super Hornets.
This test also reinforces the Navy’s seriousness about unmanned aviation. The service caught considerable flak in the 2010s after testing the X-47B unmanned aerial vehicle—and then promptly shelved it. The service greenlighted the new MQ-25 Stingray carrier-based drone, but made it a tanker instead of a fighter or strike aircraft. Now we know that there’s been an interest in unmanned aviation all along. But instead of building new unmanned aircraft, the Navy decided to leverage its fleet of hundreds of manned aircraft, devoting resources into converting them into unmanned platforms.
MQ-25 Stingray drone.
Now it seems unmanned aircraft will almost certainly be an important weapon in the Navy’s arsenal for future missions. Although drones can be controlled by crews on the ground on the other side of the planet, enemy electronic attack forces will be doing their best to interfere with U.S. forces, attempting to jam communications between a drone and its controllers. A manned aircraft could control multiple drones, providing instructions through unjammable short range communications.
For now, it’s still important to have a human around.