There are a variety of projects currently underway to ensure that naval aviation capability evolves to increase mass, range, persistence, and resilience. Here we look at the Future Maritime Aviation Force (FMAF) vision for 2030.
FMAF has many strands, predominately centred on the addition of Uncrewed Aerial Systems (UAS) to supplement or eventually replace existing conventional aircraft. The various elements of FMAF include solutions that range from relatively simple to very ambitious. Although primarily an RN endeavour, FMAF also involves considerable RAF participation.
Despite the talk of radical transformation, there are no immediate plans to dispose of existing crewed aircraft and in the short-medium term they will be upgraded. In the longer term, the soaring costs of conventional aircraft points to a future (c2050-60s) of predominantly uninhabited aircraft. Both RN and RAF conventional aircraft numbers are clearly inadequate to match growing threats and the increased reach of precision weapons. Adversaries’ area access denial strategies demand platforms with greater range and reduced risk to aircrew.
Besides the cost savings per airframe, the FMAF vision envisages that new UAS will have better endurance and act as force multipliers. Some types are intended to be sufficiently cheap and numerous to be attritable – ie. not worry if they are lost in action. They will also allow sensors to be placed in more risky positions to detect and track more demanding threats. There is an ambition for FMAF to include an air-air refuelling UAS to extend the range of the F-35 but this is a complex and costly requirement that remains on the ‘wish list’ for now.Future-Maritime-Aviation-Force-3
The F-35B will continue to be the centrepiece of naval aviation for several decades to come. The first 48 on order for the UK will have been delivered by 2027. It should be clear by the next defence review (due around 2025-6) what the total number of aircraft will be, but it is unlikely to exceed 80. Assuming the trickle of deliveries continues, by 2030 the fleet might number around 55 jets. Of similar importance, by 2030 both the Meteor BVRAAM and SPEAR-3 standoff weapon will have been integrated (intended to be completed in 2024) and the Block 4 software upgrade applied across the fleet. There is an obvious need for an anti-shipping/land-attack missile for F-35 and it is possible that the FCASW programme might meet this requirement by 2030 (weapon carried externally). The second frontline F-35 Squadron, 809 NAS was supposed to stand up in 2023 but delays to aircraft deliveries and aircrew training may see this pushed back to 2026. By 2030 a third (RAF) squadron should be in the process of being created.
Although it was not officially announced in the Integrated Review, the out of service date for the Merlin fleet has now been extended out until 2040 at least. (The Mk2s were due to retire in 2029 with the more recently refurbished Mk4s going in 2030) There are simply not the funds to build replacement aircraft but a further upgrade of avionics and mission systems is likely. The RN is also exploring options to replace the Merlin engines but a procurement decision is not expected until mid 2023.
By 2030 the Wildcat will be a potent platform for neutralising small-medium size surface targets. Wildcat conducted the first operational firing of Martlet missile during the CSG21 deployment last year and the RN continues to develop doctrine and conduct aircrew training as this weapon is rolled out into service. The Wildcat’s light anti-ship missile, Sea Venom, was supposed to have been taken on CSG21 deployment for pre-IOC testing although there has been no public comment on developments. The 2020 Defence Equipment Plan stated that Sea Venom IOC has been delayed until 2022.
A joint project with the Army is underway to fit a Tactical Data Link (TDL) to Wildcat, a major deficiency when the aircraft first entered service. To make Wildcat a more effective ASW asset, the option of purchasing dipping sonar kits remains but there is no formal requirement for this at present. Without dipping sonar, the Wildcat cannot localise submarine targets, although can drop ASW torpedoes as directed by the ship. The Future Lightweight Torpedo is currently in the pre-concept phase, this will assess the options for either extension or complete replacement of the Sting Ray.
The RAF has now received the 9th and final P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft from Boeing. This was very much an off-the-shelf purchase, initially only including US weapons and sensors to speed up delivery and to avoid adding to the already eye-watering, £3.2Bn cost. These are very capable platforms but need further investment in an anti-ship weapon and Sting Ray replacement. Their lack of numbers could be mitigated by integration with the Protector R1 Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) remotely piloted UAS. Protector can stay in the air for up to 3 days, adding a persistent presence that Posideon can’t match. It is unclear if there are plans to purchase the General Atomics dedicated Sea Guardian version of the MQ-9B but the RAF plans to test synthetic aperture radar carried by Protector which would considerably enhance its maritime surveillance capability.
Of all the FMAF concepts, project VIXEN is perhaps the most complex and demanding, calling for the aircraft carriers be reconfigured to include catapults and arrestor gear to allow the operation of ‘loyal wingman’ UAS to work in support of F-35. (We have already covered Vixen in-depth in a previous article). Vixen will likely be a derivative of the Mosquito UAS being developed by the RAF under the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) project and the first Belfast-made Mosquito is scheduled to fly next year. While the RN is exploring the options for fitting small-medium capacity Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment to the QEC carriers and Mosquito is progressing relatively quickly, it is by no means certain that Vixens will be at sea by 2030.
If successful, Mosquito/Vixen will add significant mass to UK fixed-wing aviation and could be deployed in the strike, air defence, electronic warfare roles and act as a data node to extend sensor network coverage. It would be a significant force multiplier when deploying the F-35 and could be employed on missions deemed too risky for the expensive crewed jet. Vixen could also be adapted as a small tanker for use in the AAR role, although with a much smaller capacity than the US Navy’s dedicated MQ-25 Stingray UAS.
The RAF is developing the ALVINA swarming drone for use with Typhoon but it is also planned to complement F-35 in future. The intention is to operate large numbers of lightweight UAS in an unpredictable swarm to accompany crewed aircraft for decoy, distraction and electronic jamming in contested environments. It is unclear if Alvina will be suitable for carrier operations but would be a desirable addition to FMAF.
Project PROTEUS is the plan to develop a mid-sized RWAS capable of hunting submarines via sonobuoy and dipping sonar to supplement the Merlin Mk2. Proteus will need to be a sizeable aircraft as is also intended to provide surface search functions, replacing the Crowsnest system carried by Merlins and contribute to Maritime Intra-Theatre Lift (MITL). Whether this will utilise an existing light helicopter airframe or require the development of a completely new RWAS is unclear. A twin-rotor ‘miniature Chinook’ might offer some advantages for load-lifting and for mounting a large radar. It is intended that by 2029, Proteus will release the Merlin fleet from Crowsnest duties, allowing greater availability from this overstretched fleet to focus on its core ASW tasking. To develop an uninhabited Crowsnest replacement in the space of 8 years is possible but would be an achievement, given the recent track record of naval aviation development.
In October 2021 the RN started a competition to provide a Flexible Tactical Uncrewed Air System (FTUAS). This will comprise a small rotary-wing UAS, initially for reconnaissance use by the frigate forward deployed in the Gulf but potentially for wider use across the fleet. This is an Urgent Capability Requirement (UCR) and a contract will be placed by the middle of this year. The solution will have to be an existing aircraft such as the Schiebel Camcopter S-100, Skeldar V-200 or Leonardo AWHero. The FTUAS requirement includes a radar as well as EO cameras and will act as a pathfinder for the RN, building UAS operating experience to contribute to the development of FMAF. Viable light RWUAS have been around for more than a decade and it is hard to understand why the RN previously rejected them in favour of the unwieldy Boeing Scan Eagle FWUAS in the role (before eventually abandoning it).
Project VAMPIRE is another pathfinder procurement on the way to understanding how to operate fixed-wing UAS. Vampire will be used as a target aircraft to help offset the loss of the Hawk T1 jets used in the aggressor role for live air defence training but the projects’ objectives go wider than just simulation. Vampire must be able to carry payloads including radar and cameras and will be used to develop UAS command, control and communication procedures. Vampire will be launched from ashore or using bespoke ramps from the decks of the QEC aircraft carriers. The aircraft will be recovered from the water or land after descending by parachute. An invitation to tender was issued by the RN in January 2022 and includes the requirement for 4 air vehicles, a launcher and a control station with future options for up to 10 more aircraft and 2 launchers.
In January the RN also issued a tender for a tethered UAV designed to be attached to a moving ship and able to lift a sensor payload weighing between 1-25kg . The UAV must remain airborne for at least 24 hours and will offer a live feed from an EO camera at far greater height and with a much wider field of view than can be achieved using a sensor on the ship’s mast. The RN has also begun an extensive programme of trails with light UAS for use in the logistics, ISR and potentially strike role. As part of the Future Commando Force development, there have been experiments with UAS that can deliver supplies from ships to marines ashore. In future, a mix of small-medium size UAS will be important enablers for the Littoral Strike Groups and a standard part of Royal Marine operations.
As with many uncrewed systems, much of the technology may already exist and can be demonstrated to work in controlled conditions. But before any autonomous or remotely controlled system is of real use, it must be proven not present a danger to the user or civilians first. Each system must be evaluated and thoroughly tested for safety before being certified for operations. UAS that will operate in civil airspace must meet strict safety criteria and prove that they will respond correctly in a wide range of scenarios. There is a similar layer of complexity to consider when operating UAS on congested decks and in the airspace around an aircraft carrier. There are also demanding communication protocols, bandwidth and rules of engagement issues to be resolved before UAS are ready for deployment on live combat missions.
Delivering the FMAF vision by 2030 would be a major step up in capability for UK naval aviation but much of it is aiming high and at the very frontier of technology. For VIXEN and PROTEUS in particular to become a reality will demand a much-improved performance from industry, the Civil Service and those in uniform over that of recent decades.