Unmanned Platforms & the Royal Navy – Part 1 Aerial Systems

Since its inception the RN has been a service of technology; often under-funded, often outnumbered but rarely out-thought. The Navy board is determined the RN will regain its reputation as a leader in technology and speaking recently the First Sea Lord said:

“we don’t just want to follow industry, we want to lead… The Royal Navy and British industry is in lock-step: building our future fleet; and growing and re-growing the skills and the expertise that will define our maritime-industrial authority for years to come.”

In the 21st century autonomous unmanned platforms are emerging as one of the key technologies that will define future warfare. In this first of a 2–part series we examine the RN’s adoption of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Naval UAVs can broadly be classified in 3 groups; Land-Based, Carrier-Based and Escort, Auxiliary & Small Ship UAVs.

MQ-4C Triton

The MQ-4C Triton Global Hawk UAV has an endurance of upto 24 hours. It was built for the US Navy and designed to provide real-time intelligence and reconnaissance over the ocean and coastal regions, working in tandem with conventional P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft

Land Based UAVs

A UK purchase of at least eight MQ-4C Triton for the RAF is under serious consideration in the SDSR and they will compliment whatever manned Long-Range Maritime Patrol aircraft is procured. They would be a valuable asset but 8 is not enough, even if the UK buys the P8 Poseidon. Ideally there would be a 2:1 ratio to get the maximum advantage from Trition’s capability. The manned aircraft providing a response force, whilst the unmanned aircraft provide continuous ocean over-watch and electronic reconnaissance.

A nation possessing the world’s 5th largest Maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 6,805,586 km2, needs a lot of over watch – what is more it stretches from South Pole to the Far North Atlantic; encompassing Gibraltar, the Pitcairn Islands, Montserrat and the Cayman Islands to name just some of the territories. With the proliferation of submarines, increasing sophistication of state and non-state actors and the issues associated with climate change, mean that accurate information provided by regular surveillance will be even more crucial to UK Maritime Security.

Land based UAVs offer more than just surveillance and maritime patrol, at least in the Eastern North Atlantic and North Sea, they offer the possibility of on-call strike support to be co-ordinated with warships. This presents some integration challenges. ‘Organic’ assets launched from naval forces are already built into the force structure, but assets launched from far away under separate command and control is another level of complication. There is the opportunity for those outside of the chain of command to influence actions or delay decision-making. It will be important that this operational concept is thoroughly developed.


HMS Queen Elizabeth under construction, the ‘Ski Jump’ to assist F-35B on take off is a very prominent part of her design

Carrier Based UAVs

For better or worse, the Queen Elizabeth class have evolved into Vertical and/or Short Take Off and Landing (VSTOL) aircraft carriers. The F35B will usually perform a rolling take off using the ski-jump. A bigger challenge will be when returning to the ship still carrying stores and fuel, the F-35B will have to conduct a short rolling vertical landing (SRVL), perhaps STORL Carrier would be a more accurate description of the QE class! As yet there has been little public discussion about future UAVs that might operate from the carriers. This could be a reflection of the difficulty of finding a UAV with the required flight profile. It’s not the take-off which presents the main problem but the landing; something which would have been a considerably easier if the F-35B, and the consequently the Queen Elizabeth class, had been STOBAR design. (Short Take Off & Barrier Arrested Recovery – like China, India and Russia’s carriers) This does not require particularly complex technology but wishes do not make policy nor change history.

Unless there is a an unpublicised ‘black’ programme underway, the Queen Elizabeth class will be unlikely to field a fixed wing UAV in the near future. UAV development is moving fast, but VSTOL flight profiles are complex and place great stress on airframes. There are a lot of design hurdles that would need to be overcome to create a VSTOL UAV. Fixed-wing UAVs would add greatly to the operational capabilities the RN and are highly desirable. For example, leaving aside the obvious strike or surveillance roles, there is the support aspect of UAVs; they could be used to provide communications should access to satellite systems be impeded, or to act as tanker aircraft to extend the range of others. None of this though will be possible without a suitable UAV. The biggest problem is not the technology, but funding. The US and France with its Catapult Assisted Take Off & Barrier Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) carriers has no need for VSTOL UAVs. Britain is then rather isolated in this requirement and if it wants a UAV on its carriers, it will either have to change the flight deck configuration or it will have to go it alone and the develop the capability. Fortunately such major obstacles are not a feature of all UAV development projects.

Video: HMS Mersey launches a 3D-printed drone

Escort, Auxiliary & Small Ship UAVs

Unhampered by the complexities of the carrier program or RAF involvement, the RN has recently made most progress in the development of small ship UAVs. However progress has still been modest, the relatively simple Scan Eagle was first trialled aboard HMS Sutherland as far back as 2006 but the system only became operational in RN service in 2013. It has been deployed in on operations, particularly in the Arabian based aboard RFA Cardigan Bay and several Type 23 frigates, providing a useful surveillance capability.

In July 2015 in partnership with Southampton University the RN trialled the concept of a UAV built at sea using a 3D printer. This opens up the possibility that warships could build, configure, and reconfigure their own ‘air groups’ to suit their operational requirements as needed.

UAVs from small ships offer significant additional capabilities at relatively small cost and with little weight or space penalties. The Scan Eagle is a surveillance-only platform although has the potential to provide weapon targeting data. Future UAVs could be assets for Anti-Submarine Warfare. The USN is already in advanced level of development with the Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout rotary wing UAV. Each generation has grown more powerful and more capable and if coupled with the 3D printing program (which has so far been limited to Scan Eagle type, simple fixed wing surveillance units), the RN would be able to really extend the reach of its surface vessels.

If the RN is to remain at the forefront of technology then it needs to catch up fast in its development and use of UAVs and this requires proper planning, strategy and funding. If the carriers are to be reconfigured or if a UAV system is to be developed to fit the current configuration then the decisions will have to be taken now and funding will have to be allocated. Aircraft carriers are major strategic assets deserve full investment to maximise their capabilities. The same can be said for the inclusion of land-based UAVs in future tactical planning.

Although UAVs cannot fully substitute for the shortage of RN vessels, they can make existing and future generations of warships more effective at influencing events around them. Current systems are providing test-beds and useful experience in the integration of unmanned assets into the naval force, and therefore could have a long-term impact far beyond the physical capabilities they provide right now.

Written by Dr Alexander Clarke. Graduate of King’s College London, currently an Independent Scholar, he volunteers for the Phoenix Think Tank, writes for European Geostrategy and British Naval History, hosts the East Atlantic section of the CIMSEC Sea Control Podcasts and tweets occasionally.