COLUMN | Ship-launched UAVs set to revolutionise naval aviation [Naval Gazing]

Sailors charge the battery of an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle aboard the Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Charleston underway in the Pacific Ocean, March 27, 2021. (Photo: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam Butler)
Sailors charge the battery of an MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle aboard the Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Charleston underway in the Pacific Ocean, March 27, 2021. (Photo: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam Butler)

Fixed-wing seaborne air power is a vital component of modern naval operations, as manned carrier-borne combat planes grow ever more sophisticated and potent. They are, though, hugely expensive and require very highly trained pilots, as well as a lot of embarked manpower and technical support. They are also inherently risky to operate.

Air to air refuelling (AAR) of carrier-borne aircraft, vital for long range operations, poses a particular challenge. Land-based refuelling aircraft are often unavailable to support carrier operations, so this requirement usually has to be met by means of the hugely wasteful and inefficient process of fitting AAR pods to some of the carriers' inventories of interceptors and strike aircraft.

It is not surprising, therefore, that leading navies are shifting their focus towards the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for front line tasks including AAR, surveillance, and strike. Specialist ships dedicated to UAV operations are now in build.

UK and USA – big plans for naval UAV operations

Leading the pack is the US Navy. Soon to enter squadron service on aircraft carriers, after years of trials, is the jet-powered, catapult-launched Stingray. This UAV, which is programmed to respond to marshalling hand signals on a carrier's flight deck, is optimised for AAR.

Meanwhile, a modified version of the land-based, turboprop-powered Reaper UAV is being evaluated for carrier-borne strike operations, while the Fire Scout unmanned anti-submarine helicopter will soon be deployed from US Navy littoral combat ships.

The UK's Royal Navy, for its part, is pursuing options for deploying UAVs from its two aircraft carriers. Under the auspices of Project Vampire, trials of a modified Banshee jet-powered target drone will soon commence on board HMS Prince of Wales. The trials are intended to lead to the acquisition of a modest force of large ship-borne UAVs for surveillance operations.

More ambitious is the highly-classified Project Vixen, which is reportedly developing a lightweight, catapult-launched, jet-powered UAV for strike, surveillance and airborne early warning operations. The RN is seeking a self-contained, compact, catapult equipment system to launch UAVs from its carriers, which currently rely upon a ski-jump take-off aid to launch its F-35B fighter-bombers.

Furthermore, Leonardo has recently been awarded a contract to supply newly-designed drone helicopters for anti-submarine operations from British warships, while the possibility of developing a maritime version of the,partly UK-built Protector variant of the Reaper UAV is also being considered.

Developments in China and Russia

Russia's 26,000-tonne Project 23900 assault ships, which will have strong aviation capabilities, are due to include unmanned helicopters for strike and reconnaissance missions.

China's naval expansion continues to forge ahead, and its Type 071 assault ships, which, like Russia's Project 23900, have large straight-through flight decks, are reportedly earmarked for UAV operations, and official Chinese imagery has recently emerged of UAVs undergoing trials on the PLA Navy carrier Shandong. Analysts believe that the UAVs are of the CW-20 type, which feature folding wings, weapons bays, and both forward-facing propellers for forward flight and electrically-driven rotors for vertical take-off and landing.

Dedicated UAV carriers on the horizon

As befits an increasingly powerful and influential maritime nation, the Turkish Navy is set to become the first to operate a dedicated UAV carrier in the form of the Landing Platform (Helicopter) Anadolu. This ship, recently completed by Sedef Shipyard and currently carrying out sea trials, is scheduled to embark the indigenous, combat-proven, fixed-wing TB-3 UAV for surveillance and strike operations. A bow-mounted roller system will be fitted to launch UAVs together with a safety net for recovery.

This aircraft, which manufacturer Baykar is also pitching to the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force for deployment from its light aircraft carriers, is due later to be supplanted by the advanced MIUS unmanned naval fighter-bomber.

Following closely Turkey's lead is the Portuguese Navy, which has announced plans for a UAV mothership, with the configuration of a light aircraft carrier.

Dedicated warships to support maritime UAV operations seem certain to join the orders of battle of many navies in the years ahead.

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