By 2030, the Royal Navy plan to have moved carrier based ‘Airborne Early Warning’ capability from Merlin helicopters to ‘Vixen’ fixed wing drones.
According to a presentation on the ‘Future Maritime Aviation Force’, the Royal Navy will move airborne early warning capabilities to fixed-wing carrier launched drones called ‘Vixen’.
They say that this will “rejuvenate” the Merlin fleet. Currently, airborne early warning capabilities are delivered by Merlin with ‘CROWSNEST’ pods, you can read more about that at the link below.
The presentation states that “by 2030”, the Royal Navy will have:
“Added mass to the Carrier Wing with additional LIGHTNING and medium FWUAS (VIXEN)” and “will have rejuvenated the Merlin fleet, to synchronise with replacement capabilities, transferring PWAS/AEW/Data Node to VIXEN and ASW FIND to medium RWUAS (PROTEUS)”.
The text accompanying the ‘By 2030’ slide is as follows:
“We will have added mass to the Carrier Wing with additional LIGHTNING and medium FWUAS (VIXEN). We will have rejuvenated the Merlin fleet, to synchronise with replacement capabilities, transferring PWAS/AEW/Data Node to VIXEN and ASW FIND to medium RWUAS (PROTEUS). Wildcat will be augmented with additional ASUW/Littoral FIND capability, also by PROTEUS.
Maritime Protector will provide complementary support where teamed with POSEIDON in the North Atlantic. Small UAS capabilities will be spirally developed to encompass EW,UW and target training support.
Successful payload and weapon integration will also be key to the success of FMAF.
In 2030, medium organic UAS will deliver most FIND in the Littoral and Maritime, teamed with crewed air for FIX/STRIKE, and complemented by Maritime Protector. ASW Merlin will regain mass with the transfer of AEW capability to an alternate platform. Together with enhanced FW in the Carrier Air Wing, Maritime Aviation will be reconstituted to match evolving peer threats.”
Discussing ‘Project Vixen’, respected defence journalist Harry Lye wrote:
“Under Project Vixen, the Royal Navy is exploring how fixed-wing UAS could be used for missions including surveillance, air-to-air refuelling, electronic warfare and strike.”
How will the drones be launched?
Earlier, we reported that the Ministry of Defence is currently seeking information on the potential for industry provide assisted launch and arrested recover systems for a range of air vehicles, which would be suitable to fit to a vessel within 3 – 5 years.
The Ministry of Defence say that this request for information is to support the development of the Royal Navy’s Future Maritime Aviation Force (a presentation on which is where the slide above came from) with potential for use with both crewed and un-crewed air vehicles.
The Ministry of Defence add that it is looking to assess the availability of electromagnetic catapult, and arrestor wire systems for the launch and recovery of air vehicles.
While the Request for Information looks to assess the “availability of electromagnetic catapult and arrestor wire systems to launch aircraft” from a ship, words associated with the previous effort to explore converting the vessels to ‘CATOBAR’ in order to launch carrier variant F-35Cs, it shouldn’t be taken as indication that the Royal Navy are abandoning the short take off and vertical landing F-35Bs and returning to catapult launched fighters. On the contrary, they’re looking to augment the F-35Bs.
In fact, the upper and lower weight limits of the catapult and recovery system outlined aren’t enough to launch or recover any variant of the F-35 in normal conditions.
The launch and recovery options mentioned would be utilised for larger uncrewed aircraft as the armed forces begin to rely on them more and more in place of crewed platforms.
Anyway, on to the Request for Information itself.
“Potential supplier and interested parties are invited to provide information in relation to potential solutions which are sufficiently technically mature to be fitted to a suitable ship from 2023.”
According to the Request for Information, the Ministry of Defence have set out the following requirements.
“Potential arrestor solutions ideally should offer:
a. Max trap 47000lbs / 21318Kg
b. Min trap 11000lbs / 5000Kg
c. Energy damping method
d. Potential for energy reclamation
Potential catapult solutions ideally should offer:
a. Max launch weight 55000lbs / 24949Kg
b. Electrical power input required against launch cycle time.”
According to the Ministry of Defence, the intended outcomes of the Request for Information are as follows:
“a. Develop further MoD understanding of the different technologies and capabilities available in the market, both current and emerging.
b. Alignment of potential future MoD requirements with industry standards and processes for procurement of maritime un-crewed and autonomous capabilities; and,
c. Enable the Authority to develop a procurement strategy that will deliver best value for money for Defence.”
The Royal Navy say that the DEVELOP Directorate leads the development of the Royal Navy’s future warfighting capability and “acts as the platform for the through-life capability for all maritime capabilities in order to achieve the optimum mix of present and future warfighting technologies for a modern, global and ready Royal Navy”.
The Royal Navy is driving hard to introduce a range of un-crewed air vehicles and to “give wider options for the use of different air vehicles types within the Fleet”.
Before jumping the gun on this news, a bit of perspective is important. Well respected naval analyst Gabriele Molinellli had the following words of caution to say.
UK Defence Journal has more information on RFI for "assisted launch and arrested recovery" for shipboard use. No, Royal Navy's carriers are not turning to catapults. BUT some launch and recovery solutions will be needed in future to deal with large unmanned platforms. https://t.co/lZCxRatiHK
— Gabriele Molinelli (@Gabriel64869839) March 1, 2021