Royal Navy flies first mega Mojave drone from aircraft carrier

Pilotless plane said to be next generation of naval air power

A large drone aircraft has been operated from one of Britain's aircraft carriers for the first time, indicating how the Royal Navy intends to expand its air power beyond the meager number of F-35 fighters it currently has at its disposal.

The "Mojave" aircraft took off and landed back on the carrier HMS Prince of Wales last week in trials being conducted off the eastern coast of the US. It is part of the Predator-series family of fixed-wing drones built by General Atomics, and much larger and more capable than other drones the Royal Navy has operated until now.

It is also said to be the first time that any navy other than that of America has been able to fly such an unmanned aircraft from one of their ships.

"The Mojave trial is a European first – the first time that a Remotely Piloted Air System of this size has operated to and from an aircraft carrier outside of the United States," Royal Navy director of Develop, Rear Admiral James Parkin, said in a statement.

Parkin said the success of the trial "heralds a new dawn in how we conduct maritime aviation," hailing it as another step in the evolution of the Royal Navy's carrier strike group into a mixed crewed and uncrewed fighting force.

The Mojave is described as a version of the MQ1C Gray Eagle drone that has been adapted for short take-off and landing (STOL) from "austere" runways where it would otherwise not be possible to operate large unmanned aircraft like the Predator.

This is how it is able to operate from the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth-class ships, which lack the catapults and arresting gear that are normally used to launch and recover fixed-wing planes from aircraft carriers. The F-35B fighters that the UK's navy operates launch using a ramp at the bow of the ship and typically perform a vertical landing, like their Sea Harrier predecessors.

Mojave is 9 meters (29 ft) long and has a 16 meter (52 ft) wingspan. It is claimed to be able to carry up to 1.633 metric tons (3,600 lb) in payload, the equivalent of 16 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Configured for a surveillance mode, it is said to be capable of staying aloft for more than 20 hours, which is one of the attractions of this type of aircraft, as they don't need to carry any crew.

Commander Martin Russell, in charge of air operations aboard HMS Prince of Wales, said the trial felt like "a glimpse into the future."

During the first trial take-off and landing, the Mojave didn't carry anything, however, so further tests will be required to see how easy it is to operate an aircraft like this when carrying weapons or sensor payloads, and in varying weather conditions. It also unclear how easy it will be to land a drone safely on the Queen Elizabeth-class ships when there are other aircraft such as F-35 fighters parked on the deck.

But the Mojave will likely not be the drone that the Royal Navy operates, even if it does decide it is perfectly feasible to operate these aircraft from the carriers. According to the website Navy Lookout, this would probably be the MQ-9B SeaGuardian, which is essentially the same aircraft that is due to enter service next year with the Royal Air Force as the Protector RG Mk 1, but which can be configured for STOL operation aboard carriers with a wing and tail kit inspired by the Mojave.

The potential missions of an unmanned aircraft include ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and anti-submarine operations, dispensing and monitoring sonobuoy sonar sensors. They could also be used to carry anti-ship missiles or weapons to attack targets on land.

Another role mooted could be carrying radar for airborne early warning and control, perhaps eventually replacing the specially adapted Merlin helicopters that currently fulfil this role for the Royal Navy. The Merlin can only stay aloft for a few hours and also cannot fly as high as an aircraft such as the MQ-9B, which limits how far out its radar can detect threats.

As such, drones would not replace the F-35B in Royal Navy service, but instead complement them. This is just as well, as the UK government has no plans to procure more than 74 of the stealth aircraft, and these are operated as a joint force that sees the planes shared between the RAF and the Navy.

Currently, there are understood to be 31 in service in the UK, with a Tranche 1 purchase of 48 aircraft due to be completed by 2025, and a follow-on Tranche 2 purchase to be complete by the early part of the next decade. Drones could supplement these, and are likely to cost less, with some sources putting the cost of an MQ-9B at $37.8 million, compared with about $80 million for an F-35B.

A House of Commons Defence Committee report in September claimed there had been "significant cuts" to the UK's air power capabilities that have left the country "dangerously exposed." While the UK air fleet is made up of highly capable aircraft, it was criticized as being "just too small" and the report called on the MoD to "urgently address this lack of combat mass." ®

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