Carrier based ‘Vixen’ drones are being considered for a range of missions including combat, aerial refuelling and airborne early warning but what could they look like?

According to an official Royal Navy publication, titled Future Maritime Aviation Force, which was originally published in December 2020, the Royal Navy aims to replace its helicopter-based airborne early warning (AEW) platform, the Merlin HM2 Crowsnest, with a fixed-wing UAV, currently known as Vixen, by 2030.


This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.


The Royal Navy also expects to utilise Vixen in surveillance, air-to-air refueling, electronic warfare and strike roles. A slide from the publication shows that Vixen could be used for airborne early warning, strike, aerial refuelling and more.

You can read more about the aerial surveillance side of things by clicking here and the aerial refuelling aspect by clicking here.

What will they look like?

Project Vixen also parallels the Mosquito project, part of the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) initiative.

Naval Technology reported here that the Royal Navy and RAF are working together to study potential platforms for Mosquito and Vixen, suggesting that a common drone could be fielded fby both services.

We reported recently that the uncrewed fighter aircraft demonstrator for LANCA, known as Mosquito, will begin a flight-test programme in 2023.

Minister for Defence Procurement, Jeremy Quin, gave a keynote speech at the RUSI Combat Air Power conference outlining the plan.

“Our £30m contract to design and manufacture the prototype for an uncrewed fighter aircraft, known as Mosquito, is supporting more than 100 jobs in Belfast. In 2023 we will be looking to conduct a flight-test programme for the demonstrator.”

Known as a ‘loyal wingman’, these aircraft will be the first uncrewed platforms able to target and shoot down enemy aircraft and intercept surface to air missiles.

“The uncrewed combat aircraft will be designed to fly at high-speed alongside fighter jets, armed with missiles, surveillance and electronic warfare technology to provide a battle-winning advantage over hostile forces. Known as a ‘loyal wingman’, these aircraft will be the UK’s first uncrewed platforms able to target and shoot down enemy aircraft and survive against surface to air missiles.”

CGI of Mosquito via Spirit AeroSystems.

Team MOSQUITO, which also includes Northrop Grumman UK, will mature the designs and manufacture a technology demonstrator to generate evidence for the LANCA programme.

If successful, Project Mosquito’s findings could lead to this revolutionary capability being deployed alongside the Typhoon and F-35 Lightning jets by the end of the decade.

“The Project will deliver a demonstration of a capability that the RAF may wish to develop further in the future,” a spokesperson from the RAF said.

“It is not intended to output an operational capability at this stage, but it will inform future decisions for the future UK combat air capability.  We are exploring the optimum way in which such capabilities could complement platforms such as Typhoon, F-35, and Tempest.”

Most commentators believe that Vixen and Mosquito are likely to share a common platform.

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”.

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Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
4 months ago

George, you might want to create an “Opinion” section on the home page, otherwise many may miss seeing these articles. I only knew these were posted because I saw the Crawford opinion piece on leasing Leopards in the popular posts section. You might also include such topics in the relevant Land, Sea and Air sections, so there are multiple paths for readers to find their way to an article, de[ending on how they use the site.

TrevorH
TrevorH
4 months ago

Yes. How come this does not readily appear on the headline list of comments when it’s dated yesterday. I saw it via a link at the front of my Google screen.

The concept behind the story is of course excellent.

David Steeper
David Steeper
4 months ago

Agree. This part of site is often the most informative. Especially about subjects that wouldn’t make headlines anywhere but actually really matter.

Patrick O'Neill
Patrick O'Neill
4 months ago

Those are incredibly short timescales for such an ambitious range of capabilities. Certainly with regard to the AEW function, now that Merlin has out of service extended to 2040 we are likely to see Crowsnest carrying on well beyond 2030.

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
4 months ago

Crowsnest may be delayed as you say, the extended OSD gives more wriggle room, but that’s certainly not the RN’s ambition. The text that went alongside the slide graphic in the article above states that by 2030 – “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).” It then goes onto to say – “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… Read more »

Watcherzero
Watcherzero
4 months ago

They may be dithering, initially at the defence review they were talking about acquiring an off the shelf helicopter replacement with an in service date before the 2030 target withdrawal of Merlin but they are now looking at the two parallel medium lift helicopter development programs which are spinning up (a NATO/EU one and rival US one) which would develop a completely new optionally manned medium lift helicopter for introduction 2030-2040 and considering industrial participation.

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
4 months ago
Reply to  Watcherzero

I don’t recall a Merlin replacement being discussed in the IR? Puma was for sure. The Defence and Security Industrial Strategy document stated – “To maintain this capability cost-effectively we aim to consolidate our fleet, initially through procuring a new Medium Helicopter by the middle of the decade to replace the Puma and in due course three other helicopter types. We anticipate that our other main helicopter platforms (Merlin, Wildcat, Chinook and latest Apache) will remain in-service until next generation technologies and unmanned systems start to augment or replace these more conventional systems.” As the text above suggests, I suspect… Read more »

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago

The UK is currently leading the European project while it’s in the requirements definition phase. So a bit more than “expressing interest”

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
4 months ago
Reply to  Ron5

Thanks, I stand corrected as I see we’ve signed an LOI. Not sure how that didn’t register, must have confused it with the French/German MBT initiative … unless I’ve got that wrong too.

Nate M
Nate M
4 months ago

what will replace the merlins ASW role?

Nic
Nic
4 months ago
Reply to  Nate M

The ASW and AEW roll will probably be carried out by Vixen or a similar type of UCAV. operating from Carriers.
But Merlins or a similar type of helicopter will still be needed for troop deployment and logistics support.

Nate M
Nate M
4 months ago
Reply to  Nic

to me rotary always seemed better then fixed wing for asw. so which is actually better at the job?

Nic
Nic
4 months ago
Reply to  Nate M

Rotary drones is another option and could fulfil many tasks operating from carriers or other suitable ships , but i not sure it any have been considered

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago
Reply to  Nate M

The helicopter that will emerge from the current European cross country project will replace Merlin ASW.

Nic
Nic
4 months ago
Reply to  Ron5

Who is involved in the current European cross country project.

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
4 months ago
Reply to  Nic
John Clark
John Clark
4 months ago

I wouldn’t be so sure here. Crows Nest is a bit of a ‘relatively’ safe Stopgap, a sensible solution to an immediate problem Patrick. I’m sure a far more capable AEW/ electronic attack and jamming UCAV will be aloft onboard a QE Class Carrier 10-15 years from now. There’s going to be consideble investment in this area pushing forward (already is behind the scenes), all part of the wider project Tempest technology drive. I would expect a joint common airframe for the RAF / RN, it makes sense to have a large single fleet, deployed as needed. A fully marinised… Read more »

Nic
Nic
4 months ago
Reply to  John Clark

The only problem is that they recently released that they did not plan to develop a Tempest variant for Carriers .

John Clark
John Clark
4 months ago
Reply to  Nic

Morning Nic, by Tempest, I mean the technology that’s being developed around it, materials, 3d printing, advanced avionics etc. Vixen / Mosquito is all part of this development drive and will directly draw on this development work. A single and capable UCAV type is the way to go. I have reservations regarding the mission set that’s being planned for the type. It does suggest a highly capable type with advanced integrated avionics. A good payload, ROA and the Air to Air capability (in particular), suggest a UCAV, far from cheap! Air to Air suggests complex avionics, with capable excess thrust… Read more »

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
4 months ago
Reply to  John Clark

Hi John. I suspect Air-to-Air probably won’t focus on high manoeuvrability, even for the manned Tempest platform. The combination of engagements occurring at ever increasing BVR, along with missiles capable of 50g+ manoeuvres and off boresight over-the-shoulder targeting, all of which already exist, means there won’t be much if any ROI for including high manoeuvrability.

Peter S
Peter S
4 months ago

The UK ambition for unmanned systems is in sharp contrast to the USA. Apart from the MQ25 tanker programme, there appear to be no other plans in the latest service budget bids. The Defense News site has an article on the subject.

Peter S
Peter S
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

Sorry. The article is on Breaking Defense.

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

I would think they are all hidden in the black budget. RQ180 just one example.

Peter S
Peter S
4 months ago

Possibly, though the funding for the USN drone programmes was made public in previous rounds of bids.UK seems to be more committed to unmanned development than the US.
The main aim is to create low cost force multipliers. I can see how that might be achievable for a land based loyal wingman. I don’t see how a low cost option can be delivered to the aircraft carriers given the need to retrofit cats and traps.

spyintheskyuk
spyintheskyuk
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

I think it also has to be added that what we are trying to achieve as a demonstrator is only what the various US companies in particular Northrop Grumman already sit on, indeed probably lower in general to what they have achieved already. From what I understand there are Army, Airforce and Navy projects ongoing in some form or other on formulating their next stage beyond the present Navy MQ25 (with limited strike) project. Experience with the latter will no doubt feed into their decisions as to where to go next I think and exactly what capabilities to build into… Read more »

Peter S
Peter S
4 months ago
Reply to  spyintheskyuk

You make a lot of good points. I have tried to dig out information on why the USN reduced the scope of their UCAV programme but without much success. One comment was that concentrating on an air tanker would be the most effective force multiplier, removing the need to use a third of the F18 fleet on buddy refuelling. It is not clear whether technical difficulties contributed to this decision. The UK has the added problem and expense of needing to develop and retrofit a fairly powerful EMALS system. Within the constraints of current funding, I doubt this is achievable.… Read more »

DaveyB
DaveyB
4 months ago

Understanding the requirements and what can be realistically delivered, will be key to seeing if the LANCA (Mosquito/Vixen) program produces a usable product or remains a pipe dream. So what are the roles and requirements that the unmanned air systems (UAS) are expected to deliver: 1. Loyal Wingman – a UAS that supports a Typhoon/F35B in air superiority and strike roles. 2. Airborne early warning (AEW) – using a short to medium range radar to expand the radar horizon. 3. Airborne Tanker – a critical asset that can extend the reach and duration of manned/unmanned aircraft. 1. What is a… Read more »

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago
Reply to  DaveyB

“For example an average target flying at 50ft above mean sea level (AMSL)
will be detected at 394km (213nm) compared to 28km (15nm) for a ground
based radar that is 50ft AMSL”

Not quite correct. The radar horizon from 30k feet is 394km but as your target is flying at 50 feet, it can been seen from a further distance i.e. 410km.

Similarly, the ground station at 50 feet can see the target at 32km.

BTW, “bomb truck” ?? The RAF left that notion behind eons ago.

DaveyB
DaveyB
4 months ago
Reply to  Ron5

Nice, I like debate. Like I said an average target and in an ideal world. If you want to get specific on effective radar detection range using real world experience, the target’s detection range will depend upon the RCS of the target, the radar’s operating frequency, effective radiated power, antenna gain, receiver sensitivity, type of and number of noise filters used to remove background clutter, the type and size of the computer used to analyze the signal data, not forgetting the memory it has available. Then there’s atmospherics to consider between the target and receiver. Not to mention the latitude… Read more »

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago
Reply to  DaveyB

No debate. Just correcting a basic mistake in your post. Which still remains a mistake despite all your rigmarole about RCS etc.

As for “bomb truck”. That term is usually reserved for aircraft that “trucked” as many dumb bombs as possible over the target before “dumping” them out. Has zero to do with the platform being manned or otherwise.

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
4 months ago
Reply to  DaveyB

Nice outline of options. As a precursor to my thoughts, its perhaps worth observing that we are tending to think in terms of one airframe when perhaps the barriers to supporting two may be significantly lower than would have been the case in the past. The major manufacturing and support costs are likely to be in the common-to-all-platforms avionics, sensors, engine and software, especially if we are successful implementing highly automated assembly and leveraging additive manufacturing. I have a hard time seeing Mosquito/Vixen as a supersonic solution, let alone Mach 2+ capable. If we want that in an unmanned platform… Read more »

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago

The primary advantage of a wingman is his or her additional set of eyes and sensors. Similarly the main aim of Vixen & Mosquito is to provide addition sensors & sensor range to the prime. Any other wingman capability is very much secondary. Personally, I think that, despite the RAF/RN’s slides, the eventual product of the Vixen/Mosquito programs will not be of much use of air tanking because it will have to be small to be a) affordable and b) capable of carrier launch. Not sure I have much faith in its AEW role either. Unmanned AEW has a bunch… Read more »

Peter S
Peter S
4 months ago
Reply to  Ron5

I agree. The 3 roles- combat, AEW and refuel- suggest very different airframe designs. For AEW, range, altitude and time on station imply a large wing, fuel efficient low power engines. Refuel would need to be fairly large to carry a meaningful load. Combat would need to be at least high subsonic, maneouverable and stealthy. It isn’t clear what the priority is. For the USN, operating in the Pacific, extending range is seen as crucial. Is it for the RN? Helicopter borne AEW is not ideal but is replacing it a necessity? At present, and for the next few years… Read more »

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

Excellent comment

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

Perhaps what makes replacing Crowsnest more of a priority is less about the capability of helicopter AEW and more about freeing up Merlin platforms for ASW. This might also reduce flight hours across the Merlin fleet, so they last until replaced by a new platform that ideally happens 2035-40. But a new Euro helicopter project could be delayed based on past project track record, providing further incentive to take Merlin out of the AEW role earlier rather than later.

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago

Good thought. Makes a lot of sense.

Peter S
Peter S
4 months ago

We could certainly do with more ASW capability and you’re right that Crowsnest takes away Merlin from that essential role.
The problem is really that anything other than a rotary wing replacement will require cats and traps. The equipment budget is stretched to the limit. So even if a lightweight affordable UCAV can be delivered, the costs of adapting the carriers to operate it might be unaffordable.
Of course, a STOVL drone could solve the problem!

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

I think you captured it all there. It seems to me the RN is at a pivotal point, which might explain the relatively tight timeline in the RFI, i.e. they need to know a solution is real and not some PowerPoint project. If cats and traps are affordable then fixed wing Vixen (Strike/AEW) and AAR are options; if not then its STOVL platforms, with a challenge to meet probable requirements for Vixen, since AEW and AAR wouldn’t drive the same performance requirements IMO. Samad Aerospace e-Starling and Starling Jet concepts are my placeholders for the type of platform that would… Read more »

Peter S
Peter S
3 months ago

I hadn’t realised when I commented above how seriously the USMC is looking at an unmanned platform to operate from their assault carriers. Their priority seems to be AEW, currently provided from USN carriers. With their own AEW they could operate more independently. The favourite design seems to be a tilt rotor with 300knot speed. Air to air and air to ground capabilities are also in the mix. This wouldn’t deliver the loyal wingman role. But we might face a choice between EMALS retrofit plus new UCAV or a further purchase of F35. I would favour the latter- less risky… Read more »

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
3 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

Just to observe that if the USMC project you are referencing is MUX, which was potentially looking to use the V-247 Vigilant, at least from Bell’s perspective, then that USMC program seems to have crashed and burned. The USMC may still have an organic AEW interest for their assault carriers and/or San Antonio-class but I don’t recall seeing any solutions and/or programs proposed since.

DaveyB
DaveyB
3 months ago

That’s correct the USMC/Navy wanted to make a multi-role platform using just one airframe. This proved undoable, hence why it got canned. The Bell V247 Vigilant was originally designed for beachhead close air support. However, when the US Navy were looking at using the America class as Lightning carriers, the trial they did in the South China Sea 2019 proved that the ship must have organic AEW. The US Navy provided a couple of E2Cs flying out of the Philippines as AEW support, but the transit times significantly shortened their time on station. But also bad weather in the Philippines… Read more »

Peter S
Peter S
3 months ago
Reply to  DaveyB

I don’t think that cats and traps which anMQ Stingray type would require are an option for the America class. The MUX termination seems to have been made because of a combination of concerns about range and the power required forAEW plus the likely cost. What they’re left with is reliance for the high end mission on a land based aircraft and some smaller platform that can operate from the assault carriers. Given how long the USMC and USN have spent looking at unmanned options, it doesn’t suggest the UKs project is going to be easy. I must admit I… Read more »

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
4 months ago
Reply to  Ron5

I wonder if the traditional definition of the wingman role holds up for the unmanned Vixen/Mosquito platforms though? It seems that if the UAS is anywhere close to the manned platform then the latter’s sensors would see whatever the loyal wingman UAS sensors do? If the aircraft are separated by a significant distance then of course that might no longer be the case. So it probably depends on what we define the “loyal wingman” role as in CONOPS and perhaps we shouldn’t focus on/read too much into the “loyal wingman” label. I agree that combining Strike, AEW and AAR into… Read more »

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago

I’m thinking the Vixen/Mosquito would be quite some distance away to extend sensor range, given the excellent sensors on both the F-35 and Typhoon. Even more in the future with the Typhoons new radar.

DaveyB
DaveyB
3 months ago
Reply to  Ron5

If the loyal wingman requirement needs to compliment the F35 and Typhoon as you say by being an additional sensor platform, then you don’t want to fit it with something basic, that would be too easy to detect. But then if you are looking at installing a low probability of intercept (LPI) radar then the costs will start ramping up. Conversely, if you fit it with just a couple of infrared search and track sensors (IRST), then the F35/Typhoon will still be doing all the long range searching. The RAF have stated that the Mosquito will be a cheap and… Read more »

James Fennell
James Fennell
4 months ago

Great article George: So it looks llke in the short term on FAA front (before 2030) Vixen will deliver a persistent wide area surveillance, AEW data node carrier borne UAS. Will have a big AESA radar and comms suite. Could be something like MQ-25? Proteus will deliver a heavyweight ASW RWUAS like AWHero or Firescout with sonorbouys for the Find mission. Deployed on T45, T26?. RAF will get a Sea Guardian with radar and sonorbouys to complement P8s. P8s also to get an AShM – Harpoon. F-35 to get AShM? Merlin HM2 will be upgraded for ASW and AS and… Read more »

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago
Reply to  James Fennell

Good grief, not sure what to admire most: your imagination or your optimism  😀 

Glass Half Full
Glass Half Full
4 months ago
Reply to  Ron5

Not really James’ imagination as all of that comes from the RN slide in the article. Granted, whether the RN can get it all by 2030 is another matter though.

Leonardo Yeovil are developing a 3 tonne UAS prototype/demonstrator at their cost, not just re-purposing an existing manned helicopter platform. So a Fire Scout level platform may be available for the RN, whether they buy it is another matter. Although looking at what they want Proteus to do, i.e. deploy sonarbouys and surface surveillance to augment Wildcat, it seems they’ll want/need a platform of this size.

David Nicholls
David Nicholls
4 months ago

I would think the EMALS would be installed on the starboard side of the CVF bow, next to the ski ramp. If that was the case it may limit the max wingspan of the drone (the MQ25 has quite a large wingspan) but would not interfere with F35b ops. For recovery one could put arrester wires on the current runway as one does not need an angled deck on such a wide flight deck.

Nic
Nic
4 months ago
Reply to  David Nicholls

I dont think they will be able to launch and recover the vixen any other way unless they install the EMALS on the main flight deck and use the ski jump.

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago
Reply to  Nic

Problem there, I think, would be if the EMALS goes wrong, the main runway would be blocked for the F-35’s.

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago
Reply to  David Nicholls

Port side of the ski jump surely? i.e. waist

Nic
Nic
4 months ago
Reply to  Ron5

Is that area not normally used for storage of on deck vehicles and equipment. and aircraft at times.

Ron5
Ron5
4 months ago
Reply to  Nic

You’re thinking of the “graveyard” which is to the starboard of the ramp. I’m thinking further aft on the other side in front of the helicopter landing/parking spots where waist cats usually live.

Nic
Nic
4 months ago
Reply to  Ron5

I think the carriers will be the ship that will be able to accommodate the Vixen , Because they will require space for storage of the vixen ,spare parts ,additional fuel ,armaments and handling crews/ maintenance crew.

Ron5
Ron5
3 months ago
Reply to  Nic

Totally agree.