Just the other day Salty Dog 502, one of two X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrators actually performed in flight refueling autonomously by plugging into and taking on fuel from an Omega Aerial Refueling Services KC-707 tanker.
The X-47B is strictly a demonstrator program, designed to show that autonomous vehicles could be launched from a carrier, land aboard a carrier, operate on the flight deck, and be refueled in flight. Those were some pretty lofty goals, and we admit that we were surprised at just how successful the program was, with little or no drama involved in the various phases of the program.
It is a long, long stretch from a demonstrator type program to fielding an actual combat capable autonomous platform, and indeed there’s strong debate over just what roles any future unmanned combat aircraft should perform. Some argue that a lower risk approach of an ISR focused platform would reach the fleet sooner, at lower cost, and develop the tribal knowledge to form a firm foundation for future development, all while fulfilling an important mission not currently met by the carrier air wing. Others, such as Senator McCain insist that the expense of developing an unmanned combat air vehicle demand that it be an actual strike platform, especially in light of the challenges anti-access weapon systems such as the S-300 pose to the current airwing.
The objectives of the X-47B program have been met, and both Salty Dog 501 and 502 will shortly be retired, and almost certainly be turned into museum pieces.