While unmanned aerial vehicles won’t replace the manned variety anytime soon, UAVs could operate alongside conventional air power in the very near future. Case in point: The Navy recently executed a carrier landing with the F/A-18 and the X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle.

Critics have long touted the expanded utility of UAVs, from close-air support to drone “swarms” that would overwhelm enemy air defenses (and possibly, enemy jets). Theoretically, an unmanned system that wasn’t hamstrung by biological factors — like an aversion to high g-Forces — should be capable of outperforming manned aircraft.

The X-47B performed an arrested landing alongside an F/A-18. MCSA Alex Millar/Navy.

But the airframes on contemporary unmanned systems won’t support the type of performance characteristics endemic to jets like the F-22, the F/A-18, or even the oft-reviled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. For now, UAVs will have to settle for a scouting, ISR, and asymmetrical warfare complementary role.

Sunday’s joint carrier landing between an F/A-18 Hornet and X-47B was a monumental step in that direction. It portends a future where UAVs augment traditional air power, flying alongside manned jets in a support role.

“It’s not an unmanned over all others,” said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, program executive officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons at Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Maryland. “It’s a blending of manned and unmanned capabilities.”

In all, two Hornets and one X-47B launched and landed in the same “pattern”, fulfilling the Navy’s goal of executing a launch and recovery cycle for the F/A-18 within 90 seconds of the UAV.

The Navy retooled the tailhook retract actuator — which allows the X-47B to lift its tailhook after landing — and operating software to expedite the X-47B’s wingfold during taxiing. That, combined with an updated deck-handling control aboard the USS Roosevelt that forces the X-47B out of the way, allowed the team to perform the operation within the specified 90-second window.

“Today we showed that the X-47B could take off, land and fly in the carrier pattern with manned aircraft while maintaining normal flight deck operations,” Capt. Beau Duarte, program manager for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Aviation office, said in a written statement. “This is key for the future Carrier Air Wing.”