The Pentagon considers the unmanned reusable orbiting drone as one of the military’s most advanced future weapons platforms.
Initially identified as an “orbiting test vehicle,” a Pentagon video presenter Wednesday for the first time referred to the X-37B as a “research missile.”
In its third test launch, the unmanned X-37B lifted off on a rocket booster Monday from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The Air Force said the X-37B is “an affordable, reusable space vehicle.” It is scheduled to be in orbit for nine months.
The Air Force did not elaborate on the future missions of the craft.
Among the technologies being tested are advanced guidance, navigation-and-control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high-temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing.
Defense officials have said the X-37B is a key future weapon system for the U.S. military’s new Air Sea Battle Concept, which calls for weapons and capabilities that could quickly defeat China’s miltary in a conflict.
The X-37B could be armed with space-to-ground missiles that could quickly attack China’s emerging high-technology weapons and capabilities, including cyberwarfare capabilities, a new aircraft carrier-killing anti-ship ballistic missile, and — most worrying — China’s direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles that could cripple the U.S. military’s global communications and targeting capabilities.
An X-37B armed with missiles is expected to be a major deterrent to these weapons — what the Pentagon calls anti-access and area denial weapons.
Call to Block Russian arms
Sen. John Cornyn this week led a bipartisan effort to keep an amendment to the current defense bill that would block the Pentagon from doing business with Russia’s state arms exporter, called Rosoboronoexport.
In a letter to senior House and Senate armed services panel leaders, the Texas Republican and eight GOP senators and a group of eight House Democrats and Republicans urged keeping the ban in the legislation, which is now in a House-Senate conference.
They denounced the Russian firm for “arming the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria,” where an estimated 40,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since the outbreak of the March 2011 uprising against Mr. Assad.
Russia remains the largest supplier of arms to the Syrian regime. Moscow sold nearly $1 billion worth of arms to Syria in 2011, and Rosoboronexport handled about 80 percent of all arms exports.
The Pentagon has refused to end its business dealings with Rosoboronexport. In an apparent effort to please Moscow as part of President Obama’s conciliatory reset policy, the Pentagon blocked private contractors from buying Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters needed for the Afghan military and caved to Russian pressure to buy the arms through Rosoboronexport, despite higher costs and delivery delays.