At the ‘Combined Naval Event 2023’ conference held in Farnborough in May, Colonel Phil Kelly, the Head of Carrier Strike and Maritime Aviation within the Royal Navy’s Develop Directorate, presented an ambitious vision for the Royal Navy’s future in maritime aviation.
This vision, part of the broader Future Maritime Aviation Force (FMAF) initiative, includes ‘Project Ark Royal’.
Colonel Kelly’s presentation highlighted several pivotal challenges and objectives:
- F-35 Deployment Limitations: The colonel pointed out the current constraints, stating, “Lack of Mass – F35 mass will not reach level required to resource both QEC with full Combat Air potential.“
- Urgency for Uncrewed Platforms: Emphasising the inevitability of adopting these platforms, he noted, “The question is not ‘if’ the Naval force will prioritise and leverage un-crewed platforms and systems, but how quickly and efficiently, in resource constrained environments.“
- Automation for Increased Capacity: Colonel Kelly underscored the importance of automation, “We must free up warfighter capabilities for critical operations, by automating routine/repetitive tasks.“
- Operational Complexities: The focus is on “operating in complex and contested areas all the while reducing the risk to life, force, and mission.“
- Enhancing Operational Reach: The presentation highlighted the need to “increase our range, endurance, and persistence in order to build advantage.“
As part of the FMAF vision, the Royal Navy aims to retrofit arrestor gear and assisted launch equipment to the Queen Elizabeth class.
We’ve known about this part for some time, back in 2021 the Ministry of Defence confirmed that the Queen Elizabeth class carriers might be fitted with catapults ‘in the coming years’ in order to launch certain types of aircraft.
The goal is “Demonstrating the potential to INCREASE MASS AND ENHANCE LETHALITY with complimentary uncrewed capabilities and enablers.”
Several initiatives underpin this vision:
- MUAS Concept Demonstrator: This is central to understanding the potential of MUAS, with an aim to “Setup required enablers, Understand full Potential.”
- Capability Study and Development Coherence: The Royal Navy is focused on “Study Capabilities, Gather Evidence, Coherence with DEV and FGEN” to maximise operational effectiveness.
- Uncrewed Systems in Development: Systems such as VIXEN, VAMPIRE, PROTEUS, PANTHER, and FTUAS are highlighted.
- Project Ark Royal: This project involves retrofitting arrestor gear and launch equipment, pivotal for “operation of high performance Uncrewed strike and support systems.“
Project Ark Royal
‘Project Ark Royal’, as part of the Royal Navy’s Future Maritime Aviation Force (FMAF) initiative, is a crucial step towards enhancing the Navy’s operational capabilities.
As part of Ark Royal, significant upgrades to the Queen Elizabeth-class (QEC) carriers would be undertaken. A key enhancement is the addition of an angled flight deck alongside arrestor gear.
Here’s a look at its key requirements, with direct quotes from the original presentation.
- High-Performance Uncrewed and Crewed Aircraft Operations: The project “Enables operation of high performance Uncrewed strike and support systems” and holds the “Potential to enable operation of FW crewed aircraft (e.g. F/A-18E, F-35C, Rafale).”
- Initial Demonstrations and Assessments: It’s planned that “Ramp launch to be demonstrated initially, with subsequent assessment once recovery systems are in place to enable full integration can be evidenced.“
- Launch and Recovery Equipment: The ARK ROYAL – QEC Aircraft Launch & Recovery Equipment is a critical component, designed to “Enables rapid deployment of FW assets held at Alert in order to conduct a range of missions.“
- Minimising Weight and Cost Implications: A significant focus is on how the “Weight and cost implications of MUAS minimised, reducing through-life capability cost.“
- Wider Aircraft Range Operation: This equipment is “Necessary for the operation of a wider range of crewed and uncrewed aircraft,” enhancing the Navy’s versatility in air operations.
- Enhanced Cooperation with Allies: An integral part of this project is “Enables closer operation with allies and partners including alignment with the UK/US SOI on carrier cooperation.” Specifically, “VIXEN will depend on this for recovery to QEC.“
- Launch Recovery Requirements: Project Ark Royal is tailored to meet the rigorous “Launch Recovery” needs of modern naval aviation.
The plan shown below outlines a series of sequential developmental and testing phases.
The plan commences with the introduction of small-scale Uncrewed Air Systems (UAS) to establish a foundational capability for Carrier Strike. Following the initial integration, the focus shifts to developing the more complex Maritime Uncrewed Air Systems (MUAS).
Down the road, key equipment such as aircraft arrestor gear is slated for deployment. Subsequent phases involve rigorous Joint Warrior operations, which serve as field-testing environments for emerging technologies like the VAMPIRE system. Alongside, there is an effort on enhancing data and digital frameworks.
Moving through the timeline, Crewed-Uncrewed Teaming (CUC-T) becomes a focal point, crucial for testing the interoperability and efficiency of combined human and uncrewed systems. The plan further includes a series of demonstrations, notably for systems such as VIXEN, a multirole uncrewed jet aircraft.
The effort culminates in a demonstration of the Queen Elizabeth-class (QEC) carriers’ enhanced capabilities due to the Ark Royal project.
The project is focused on gathering crucial evidence to inform the defence choices available at IR25, ensuring that decisions are based on comprehensive and current data. A key aspect of this programme is to present options for the early introduction of advanced air systems and Aircraft Launch/Recovery Equipment into service.
Furthermore, a significant milestone for the project is the planned delivery of a concept demonstration in 2024, which aims to ‘open up’ the Queen Elizabeth-class (QEC) deck. This demonstration is expected to showcase the potential and readiness of these systems for integration into the Navy’s operational framework as it prepares for IR25.