ABOARD THE USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH - The Navy for the first time Tuesday launched an unmanned aircraft the size of a fighter jet from a warship in the Atlantic Ocean, as it wades deeper into America's drone program amid growing concerns over the legality of its escalating surveillance and lethal strikes.
The drone, called the X-47B, is considered particularly valuable because it is the first designed specifically to take off and land on an aircraft carrier, allowing it to be used around the world without needing the permission of other countries to serve as a home base.
There has been rising pushback against the drones from some nations that say the strikes cause widespread civilian deaths. Navy officials say the drone will give round-the-clock intelligence, surveillance, and targeting capabilities.
The X-47B took off successfully Tuesday morning and made two low approaches to the ship before heading back toward land. The test aircraft is not intended for operational use; instead, the military is using the information it gathers to develop the drone program. The Navy already operates two other unmanned aircraft, the small, low-cost ScanEagle, which does not carry weapons, and the armed Fire Scout, which is built more like a helicopter.
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, according to the Navy. It is also fully autonomous in flight. It relies on computer programs to tell it where to go unless a mission operator needs to step in. That differs from other drones used by the military, which are more often piloted from remote locations.
Some critics have said the military's use of drones, furthered by Tuesday's tests, creates concerns over the development of systems that could become weaponized and have less and less human control over launching attacks.
The Department of Defense issued a directive last year that said it would not pursue fully autonomous weapons, at least for the next few years.
Before the planes can become commonplace, the military has to prove they can operate in the harsh conditions aboard an aircraft carrier.
While the plane was not landing on the carrier Tuesday, the Navy plans to conduct such a landing - among Navy pilots' most difficult challenges - soon.