The U.S. Navy has quietly added a capability to its future carrier-launched unmanned warplane that has the potential to tilt the Pacific balance of power. On November 2, the Navy announced it would add equipment and software for aerial refueling to one of its two in-development X-47B armed drones built by Northrop Grumman.

The change could extend, by thousands of miles, the useful striking range of the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, starting in around seven years’ time. That could put them beyond the effective range of the fast attack vessels, diesel-powered submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles that China is developing in order to create a defensive perimeter around the Western Pacific…

But an unpiloted aircraft could fly as long as its equipment functioned and its onboard supply of lubricants and other fluids held out – ranging potentially thousands of miles over several days of flight. Carriers with armed, aerially-refueled drones could strike targets anywhere in the Pacific from mid-ocean safe zones.