A long-term project is underway to develop a suite of maritime uncrewed air systems (MUAS) to dramatically enhance the carrier air group and RN air power. Here we look at the latest plans for the Future Maritime Aviation Force (FMAF).
The RN acknowledges that the aircraft carriers will rarely, if ever have the option of embarking the 36 F-35s the QEC carriers were designed for. Using an incremental approach the FMAF plan will see UAS add the mass that is needed to the air wing. For the foreseeable future, the core of naval airpower will remain crewed aircraft but they will increasingly be teamed with, or supplemented by, UAS. It is not a matter of if UAS will be pre-eminent in the naval air environment, but when and how quickly the RN can bring such systems into service. Besides generally lower unit cost, UAS have the advantage of removing the risk to aircrew, providing a much more flexible and scaleable low-high end capability, can be far more numerous and part of a more distributed force coordinated by a human from the operations room.
In order to make a coherent case for further funding at the 2025 Integrated Defence Review, work is well underway to gather evidence and assess the potential of various UAS that will form the FMAF. This ranges in scope from light rotary wing or hand-launched UAS up to large platforms that would require the QEC carriers to be modified with new Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment (ALRE).
The work to gather evidence for the IR will include various demonstrations and trials as well as the ensuring FMAF can be underpinned by relevant enablers and force generation capabilities – people, training, logistics, and doctrine. The intention is that FMAF will use open data architectures and will integrate with the Naval Strike Network (NSN) that will provide common communication and data-sharing infrastructure for the fleet. Where possible, platforms will be designed to have modular payloads that can be easily changed depending on the mission or moved between air vehicles.
Vixen is the most high-end UAS development effort and is unlikely to yield results until well into the 2030s. The fixed-wing air vehicle would have the capacity for two 500kg modular payloads and would be of sufficient size to require catapult launch from the carrier. It would be multi-role and could potentially support Persistent Wide Area Surveillance, Electronic Warfare and ultimately armed strike missions. Initially, it was thought the VIXEN could be a derivative of the Mosquito UAS being developed by the RAF under the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) project but this had hardly started before it was cancelled in June 2022.
Recent RN presentations have shown the MQ-28 Ghost Bat UAS, with an arrestor hook as a placeholder for VIXEN. Ghost Bat is being developed by Boeing for the Australian Airforce and is envisaged as a ‘loyal wingman’ for land-based strike/fighter aircraft. However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it could be adapted for carrier operations and would dovetail well with future AUKUS defence cooperation. Ghost Bat is not the only contender and VIXEN could either be developed from scratch, perhaps as part of the UK-Italy-Japan Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) or be based on other similar platforms such as the US Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie or even the Turkish Bayraktar Kizilelma.
Proteus is a high-end rotary wing aircraft (RWUAS) and initial development is already underway. Leonardo has been awarded a 4-year £60M contract to build a demonstrator RWAUS that will fly in 2025. PROTEUS is not funded by FMAF but is in the RN’s SPEARHEAD ASW budget line and is intended to complement and possibly eventually replace Merlin Mk2. Having a similar 2 x 500Kg modular payload capacity as VIXEN, it would be subject to 4-phase spiral development from Maritime Intra-Theatre Lift (MITL) to ASW, ISR roles and ultimately weaponisation, including delivery of lightweight torpedoes.
It is also a possible platform that could carry a powerful radar and replace the troubled CROWSNEST ASaC system. However, there is a requirement for future ASaC systems to look up as well as down in order to warn of ballistic missile threats. The interference with upward-looking radar caused by rotor blades may be an obstacle to this and other fixed-wing UAS alternatives are being considered for the ASaC role. It is envisaged that PROTEUS would be embarked on a wide range of naval vessels, not just the carrier and operate in conjunction with Merlin and Wildcat.
Vampire is a small and relatively simple fixed-wing UAS that the RN plans to use initially as an adversary emulator for air defence training purposes, replacing the Hawk T1s that were retired in March 2022. Vampire can be launched from ashore or using bespoke ramps from the decks of the QEC aircraft carriers. Based on the Qinetiq Banshee target drone, the aircraft has to be recovered from the water or land after descending by parachute.
Beyond training, it is envisaged that payloads including radar and cameras will be carried and could be used for Cyber and Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA), Electronic Warfare (EW) and decoy purposes. It also has the potential for unconventional ASW ‘find’, for example, carrying a Magnetic Anomaly detector at 400 Knots it could cover a large area to identify submarine targets quickly.
Made from GRP, the aircraft has virtually no radar signature and is a low-cost way to do basic tasks such as visually identifying unknown air targets instead of launching an F-35 costing around £35K per flying hour. An invitation to tender issued by the RN in January 2022 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.
Peregrine is the name for the small RWUAS that was delivered by the Future Tactical Uncrewed Air System (FUTAS) programme. In February the RN announced the selection of the Schiebel S-100 Camcopter which will operate in the intelligence-gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance role, initially from warships based in the Persian Gulf. The simple but well-proven platform will be equipped with Thales I-Master airborne surveillance radar that offers ultra-fine Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery, Maritime Moving Target Indication (MMTI) and Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI) modes. Radar data and imagery can be fed directly back into the operations room of the parent vessel.
The RN has begun an industry competition for its Uncrewed Aerial System Heavy Lift Challenge (UASHLC) program. This will form the basis for PANTHER – a logistics UAS for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore, beyond visual line-of-sight resupply operations which could include the delivery of munitions, food, medicine and spares. This promises to be a much cheaper method for general transport duties than using crewed aircraft. The Malloy Aeronautics T-600 quadcopter and Windracer Ultra fixed-wing drones are known to be possible contenders and tests on potential candidate vehicles provided by 7 manufacturers were run in March 2023 at Predannack Airfield.
A trial was recently conducted using logistic UAS flying from RFA Tideforce. Royal Marines operating inland were sustained with supplies flown in by drone from the tanker several kilometres offshore. Using a secure phone app, the Marines could request ammunition and even hot food to be delivered as required.
During the Westlant23 deployment off the Eastern Seaboard of the US in November it is intended that a General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Mojave MQ1C Remotely-piloted UAS will be flown of the deck of HMS Prince of Wales. The MoD recently announced that had signed a £1.5M contract with GA-ASI for a 7-month demonstration programme that will include this trial at sea. This will provide an initial assessment of the potential of the QEC carriers to operate STOL aircraft. If all goes to plan, this will be the first time a non-VSTOL fixed-wing aircraft has conducted a rolling take-off from an RN aircraft carrier in almost exactly 45 years. (The last Phantom F4-K was catapulted from the deck of HMS Ark Royal (IV) in November 1978).
As previously reported, GA has developed a concept for a carrier-capable MQ-9B (the same platform as the RAF Protector UAS) but with a specialised folding wing kit optimised for flight deck operations. The MQ1C Mojave variant has a smaller body, wings optimised for high-lift, a strengthened undercarriage and is able to take off or land in a length of less than 300 feet. (90m). Mojave could land on the QEC carriers without the need for arrestor gear (in benign conditions at least). However, the lack of Joint Precision Approach Landing System (JPALS) fitted to HMS Prince of Wales will probably see the aircraft embarked at a port in the US and conducting a take-off but no landing.
The feasibility of operating this kind of RPAS from the carrier will need much more investigation but has great potential, given its range and ability to stay airborne for at least 24 hours. Operating limits and impacts on other aircraft operations will have to be explored but MQ1C or MQ9B could be employed on naval ISR missions and possibly replace the CROWSNEST airborne surveillance and control system.ALRE-QEC-Carrier
The RN has initiated project ARK ROYAL to study how the QEC carriers could be adapted to support future aircraft. FMAF development will be incremental, moving from VSTOL-only to STOL platforms and then potentially significantly modifying the flight deck to support STOBAR and CATOBAR flight profiles.
The QEC is an ‘adaptable carrier’ but this really just amounts to spare spaces within the ship. There is a gallery deck below the flight deck with capacity available to accept catapults and the arrestor gear equipment but it would not be cheap to purchase and integrate the new ALRE, power supplies and control systems. Creating an angled deck is the only safe solution and extending the port sponson slightly would help deconflict with F-35B operations.
Funding is far from assured and this would not be realised before the 2030s but the ultimate ambition is to have a highly capable hybrid carrier that can still operate F-35Bs using a ramp but also has two electro-magnetic catapults and arrestor wires. This would allow the operation of large UAS as well as conventional allied fixed-wing aircraft and future-proof the carriers to carry all kinds of future air vehicles. Notably the longer port cat would allow operation of the Boeing MQ-25 Stingray – a dedicated Air-Air Refuelling UAS developed for the US Navy which would hugely increase operating radius of the F-35s.
A distinction needs to be drawn between the CATOBAR carriers with F-35C planned in 2010 and the new vision for 2030s. In 2012 a pragmatic decision was taken to abandon this configuration in favour of VSTOL on grounds of cost and complexity. To fully implement Project ARK ROYAL will be expensive but is more scaleable and has lower people requirement both in the air and on the ship than the 2010 plan. A first step or more affordable compromise could be just to fit the single starboard cat for UAS-only launches. The priority must be the operation of VIXEN-class UAS that can act a loyal wingman to F-35B, adding mass, reach and strike potential to the carrier airwing.