LONDON — The Royal Navy is looking to launch two new unmanned air system (UAS) programs, but is dependent on gaining funding for the projects in an upcoming review of Ministry of Defence spending in 2016 before it can take the projects forward.
“We are trying to kick-off two programs at the moment,” Cmdr. Bow Wheaton , the Royal Navy's maritime capability (aviation) program manager told an unmanned air system conference in London earlier this month.
The Flexible Deployable UAS (FDUAS) and Joint Mini UAS (JMUAS) programs are on the drawing board before the annual MoD budget planning round concludes for the financial year in April, known as ABC 2016, officials said.
“The JMUAS is a capability option pending decision as part of the Joint Forces Command Annual Budget Cycle 2016 (ABC16) planning round. It is too early in the process to state whether this will be funded or not given other defence priorities,” said an MoD spokeswoman.
The spokeswoman said the FDUAS program was in the same position as JMUAS before ABC16 concludes.
Earlier this year the British armed services received a better than expected budget settlement from the government for the remainder of the decade, in particular a hike in equipment spending.
But little new money is expected to be available in the early part of the funding cycle, giving the 2016 and 2017 planning rounds tough choices to make; including whether to fund either of the Royal Navy’s drone programs.
The British only have one maritime unmanned air system operational, the contractor-operated Boeing Scan Eagle, that is machine-deployed on a Type 23 frigate in the Middle East.
But, Wheaton told the UAS15 conference in London that moves were afoot to improve on the present line-up with two new programs by the end of the decade before considering a larger tactical maritime unmanned air system.
“We think of FDUAS as Sea Eagle Plus, as we would rather like to have a better find capability. We are also not writing off the fact the best way of delivering it [the requirement] may be by a family of systems,” said Wheaton.
Boeing showed one possible improved Scan Eagle design at September’s DESI defense show in London in September.
The US company could find itself vying with rivals AgustaWestland, Camcopter and Raytheon if the FDUAS requirement gets off the ground.
The program official said the Scan Eagle earned plaudits from navy commanders, but the deal expires mid-2017. Although the service wanted the capability handover to be seamless, Wheaton acknowledged resource constraints remain a challenge.
Wheaton said the program was “all about persistence and all about being complementary” to the manned Merlin and Wild Cat helicopter capability the RN has in service on its warships.
Aside from the Scan Eagle replacement, the Joint Forces Command is also looking at a mini-drone program which can be used for a number of roles, including its use by the Royal Marines.
British land forces successfully used Lockheed Martin’s Desert Hawk mini-drone in the Afghanistan campaign against the Taliban. The system, originally purchased as an urgent operational requirement, has since been taken into the Army’s core equipment program.
But Wheaton said that with the Joint Mini UAS, the Royal Navy is looking for something that worked better in the maritime environment for the Royal Marines and others.
“Desert Hawk is great, but as it’s name suggests, it doesn’t work very well in the maritime so we have also identified a clear requirement to get something for a joint capability in the mini [Joint Mini UAS] space,” he said.
Lockheed Martin refuted the claim that Desert Hawk wasn’t maritime capable, particularly the latest 3.1 version, which the British don’t possess.
“With five decades of experience in unmanned systems for air, land and sea, we have a small UAS family of systems which could be suitable for a joint maritime UAS, depending on the capability that is required. We have a number of all environment platforms, including Desert Hawk 3.1, which could be considered as a solution and we look forward to hearing more about the specific requirements,” said a spokeswomen for Lockheed Martin.
Unconnected with the micro-requirement, the Royal Navy has been working with Southampton University on a small and cheap unmanned aircraft created on a 3D printer by the academics.
The 3 kg vehicle was test-launched from a Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel in July and the Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft vehicle is now onboard the ice patrol ship HMS Protector ahead of an operational demonstration in the Antarctic in the first quarter of next year.
A major exercise, known as Unmanned Warrior 2016, is planned to take place in Scotland next year to test with the tactical employment of unmanned and autonomous systems.
Beyond the next five years, Wheaton said the Royal Navy also had aspirations for a tactical maritime unmanned system.
Britain’s main unmanned air vehicle programs — the Army’s Watchkeeper and the Air Force’s Reaper — also has “enormous potential" if the sensors are optimized for the maritime, said Wheaton.
“Although our priorities are elsewhere for the moment, I am absolutely confident we will start to exploit them in the maritime in the future,” he said.
His PowerPoint presentation showed Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout as being representative of the type of machine they would be looking at for PWAS and attack roles.
AgustaWestland recently completed an unmanned rotary wing capability demonstrator program for the Royal Navy using a modified SW-4 helicopter.