LONDON — Britain's Royal Navy is to lose its only remotely piloted air systems capability when the current arrangement with Boeing to operate the ScanEagle platform expires next year.

The US defense contractor has been operating the vehicle off the deck off a small number of British warships since June 2014, first to help operations in the Arabian Gulf but more recently to provide anti-piracy and anti-smuggling surveillance.

"ScanEagle will go out of service as planned in late 2017. ... No decisions on future systems have yet been taken," a spokeswoman for the Royal Navy said.

The Boeing platform is the only RPAS currently in use by the Royal Navy, and as yet there is no planned replacement.

It's hoped the 50 or so vehicles, sensors and systems scheduled to demo at the Unmanned Warrior exercise, set to take place off the coast of Scotland in October, will help crystallize thinking. Officials recognize, though, the RPAS systems are not at the top of the list when it comes to priorities in a very tough for equipment budget for the navy.

"The Royal Navy continues to develop concepts and experience with unmanned air systems (UAS), Unmanned Warrior being a significant and important part in this roadmap to a future capability," said the spokeswoman. "UAS acquisition is competing against other very high-priority options, and decisions are made annually on what is taken forward, based on capability audits and other balance of investment studies."

Royal Navy capability managers have been looking at a number of options to meet future requirements.

Officials speaking at a UAS conference in London at the end of last year said they were looking to push ahead with a program known as the Flexible Deployable UAS (FDUAS) to replace ScanEagle, but that was subject to gaining funding. ScanEagle was originally adopted by the British as a  £30 million, three-year deal, funded by the Treasury to meet an urgent operational requirement.

The arrangement has already been extended by 12 months until the end of 2017 and won't be renewed again; leaving a capability gap, unless the navy can find a way of financing a system from its already fragile budget.

Reconnaissance duties for British warships in the meantime will largely switch to the Leonardo Helicopters-built Wildcat rotorcraft that has recently been introduced into service with the navy to replace the Lynx.

The navy could be without an RPAS for at least two years as a result of ScanEagle's proposed withdrawal, the Daily Telegraph newspaper said July 19.

The commanding officer of HMS Somerset, the first Royal Navy ship to deploy with the system in June 2014, described ScanEagle as providing "game-changing, persistent surveillance and reconnaissance capability, supplementing our Lynx aircraft so that it can be held for higher-priority missions."

Boeing UK declined to comment on the future position of Scan Eagle in the Royal Navy.

Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.

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