Royal Navy Is Experimenting With Launching Jet-Powered Drones From Its New Carriers

The Banshee target drone could help pave the way for regular drone operations from the decks of British carriers.

Drones launched from HMS Prince of Wales during landmark demonstration
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The British Royal Navy has kicked off an exciting series of trials for the service by launching jet-powered drones from the deck of one of its new carriers for the first time. The initial tests involved the QinetiQ Banshee Jet 80+, best known as a target drone, onboard the HMS Prince of Wales, but the drone also demonstrated the broader potential for flying future adversary missions and more capable operational unmanned aerial vehicles from the Royal Navy's two Queen Elizabeth class carriers.

In what the Royal Navy described in a statement as a “landmark demonstration,” HMS Prince of Wales launched three Banshee air vehicles during trials off the northwest coast of Scotland. These workups include Exercise Joint Warrior, a large-scale set of multinational maneuvers.

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A Banshee drone is fired from a catapult launcher on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales during the recent demonstration.

Powered by a pair of small jet engines, the Banshee can be launched by a portable catapult from the deck of an aircraft carrier, or potentially any other large vessel, and recovered under a parachute after completing its mission. In these trials, the drones touched down on dry land, but they could potentially be retrieved from the sea, as well.

In addition to the roughly 11-foot-long drone itself, the trials explored how the launch system and other support equipment can be integrated with the carrier during fixed- and rotary-wing operations on the flight deck.

The Royal Navy has made it a high priority to look at the potential of the Banshee to replicate the kinds of threats that might be faced by the service’s carriers and other surface vessels, including fast jets and anti-ship missiles.

Currently, this kind of threat replication work is performed by a dedicated aggressor unit, 736 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), flying Hawk T1 jet trainers, but these jets are now due to be retired next April, leaving a gap that could potentially be filled by unmanned platforms.

The characteristics of the Banshee, which include a 25,000-foot ceiling, up to 400-knot speed, a 54-mile range, and the ability to approach a warship at sea-skimming height, would make it suitable to replicate certain antiship threats, a job previously carried out primarily by the Hawks of 736 NAS.

The Royal Navy describes the Banshee drone as “hard to detect on radar, giving it all the likeness of an incoming missile — making it a realistic adversary for sailors to train in countering aerial threats.”

While the 736 NAS Hawks fly primarily from Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, in southwest England, the Banshee could be taken aboard one of the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers during large-scale exercises and pre-deployment workups, providing an organic aerial adversary anywhere in the world, and one that can be engaged using live weapons or other countermeasures.

Since the Banshee can also carry a payload, it would be able to offer a range of additional threat capabilities. Perhaps the most interesting is QinetiQ’s Rattler supersonic target drone, which can in turn be launched from the Banshee. That would allow the subsonic drone to also replicate the launch platform of faster-flying threats, such as high-speed anti-ship or anti-radiation missiles.

QinetiQ

A QinetiQ Rattler supersonic target drone attached to the underside of a Banshee aerial target.

That same payload capacity also lends the Banshee to roles beyond adversary work, even if only on an experimental level. With the Royal Navy, and the British Armed Forces in general, concerned with developing unmanned combat capabilities, the Banshee could be a useful stepping-stone to achieving some of these ambitions.

The Royal Navy says the Banshee could be suitable for “testing future sensors, weaponry, and radio equipment.”

“There is a real need for a low-cost drone such as the Banshee that can replicate a range of the threats in the skies and provide a testbed for future payloads,” said Commander Rob Taylor, lead for Royal Navy Air Test and Evaluation.

“The key to this is that a warship can carry this drone with it on operations, launch it and use it to keep personnel razor-sharp in countering threats from above. The ability to adapt the payload for differing tasks is also crucial to provide value for money and interoperability across the fleet,” Taylor added.

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A Banshee target drone and an F-35B stealth fighter on the deck of HMS Prince of Wales.

The drones could also potentially be turned into real kinetic weapons themselves, operating in swarms to overwhelm enemy vessels and land-based targets, as well as for reconnaissance, decoy, and stand-in electronic warfare support. In fact, this is exactly the type of concept the Royal Air Force is working on right now, which you can read about here, and it could be extremely relevant to the Royal Navy's operations. Swarms of these drones armed with electronic warfare systems and kinetic warheads could wreak havoc on an enemy's shoreline defenses, for instance, prior to manned aviation operations.  

While the replacement of the aggressor capability provided by 736 NAS is one part of the Banshee experiment, and it's possible that using them as real weapons could occur in the future, as well, the Royal Navy Develop Directorate’s Project Vampire is undertaking the wider evaluation of carrier-based drones. Project Vampire specifies the use study of “lightweight, fixed-wing carrier-borne crewless autonomous systems,” for which the Banshee provides a useful surrogate.

USN

Target drones have been launched from naval ships for decades, especially U.S. Navy ones (from a destroyer and a carrier as seen above), but where the Banshee tests could head in terms of capabilities is very different than just providing targets to track and even shoot at. 

Project Vampire, in turn, is just one element of the Royal Navy’s broader aerial drone ambitions, as it runs a number of demonstrations that seek to determine what type of UAVs could be fielded as part of its Future Maritime Aviation Force.

That wider program will examine the capabilities offered by current and future drone technologies and will include both rotary-wing and fixed-wing drones “to fulfill a number of tasks to increase mass on the carriers and allow crewed aircraft to maximize their capacity.”

At the larger end of the UAV spectrum, Project Vixen is examining the potential for operating larger drones from British carrier decks. These could undertake a wide array of operational and support missions, including aerial refueling — a role being developed by the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray — as well as strike, potentially in a loyal wingman-type role, networked together with British F-35B Lightning stealth fighters. Other missions could include surveillance and electronic warfare.

BOEING

The U.S. Navy’s new MQ-25 Stingray carrier-based tanker drone demonstrator refuels an F-35C. An organic tanker drone would be a useful, if costly, force multiplier for a Royal Navy carrier strike group.

As The War Zone has discussed in the past, Project Vixen is currently being run as a conceptual project and there’s no promise of hardware at the end of it.

Perhaps one option to increase the likelihood of Project Vixen yielding a carrier-based drone would be to pool resources with the Royal Air Force, which is working on the parallel Team Mosquito project as part of the Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) initiative. There have been reports in the past that the two services are already working together to study potential platforms for Mosquito and Vixen. For its part, Team Mosquito aims to have a prototype low-cost “uncrewed fighter aircraft” for the RAF flying by 2023.

U.K. Ministry of Defense

An artist’s conception of a Team Mosquito drone operating alongside a British F-35B.

Project Mosquito also includes the study of drones that can operate together semi-autonomously with manned aircraft, which could also be of interest to the Royal Navy, especially in regard to a potential loyal wingman counterpart to the F-35B. With the British Lightning order under threat, the ability to boost ‘combat mass’ in this way could be very appealing.

In parallel to Project Vixen, the Royal Navy is studying how to best operate larger drones from the Queen Elizabeth class carriers. Earlier this year, the U.K. Ministry of Defence put out a request for information (RFI) for “aircraft launch and recovery equipment.” This RFI seeks information on assisted launch and arrested recovery “for a range of air vehicles, which would be suitable to fit a vessel within three to five years,” again, as part of the development work for the Future Maritime Aviation Force.

Since the Queen Elizabeth class carriers do not have catapults for launching aircraft or arrester wires for recovering them, the Royal Navy is looking at adding an electromagnetic catapult and various arrestor solutions. The U.K. Ministry of Defence says it’s looking for information on “solutions which are sufficiently technically mature to be fitted to a suitable ship from 2023.”

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A British F-35B Lightning takes off from HMS Queen Elizabeth via the “ski jump” ramp.

The addition of some kind of ‘cat and trap’ equipment on its carriers would be a complex and costly undertaking, and the Royal Navy may yet decide instead to concentrate on vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drone types, reflecting the approach taken by the U.S. Marine Corps.

There’s no doubt that designing and developing a carrier-based drone, especially one large enough to undertake critical support missions, such as aerial refueling, is no easy task. Even with the carrier aviation experience and deep pockets of the U.S. Navy, the path to fielding a carrier-capable fixed-wing drone has been a long one, although new solutions could be on the horizon.

With all this in mind, it shouldn’t be a surprise if we see the United Kingdom’s ambitions to bring drones to its carrier decks scaled down. On the other hand, any such program has to start somewhere, and it could be that the recent Banshee trials lead to much more impressive capabilities down the line. At the very least, maybe the Banshees trials could lead to a quicker path to realizing the ability to deploy large swarms of lower-cost drones—for strike, electronic warfare, or surveillance purposes—that can operate significantly far over the horizon from Royal Navy warships in the not so distant future.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com