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Royal Navy’s successful crewless aircraft trials offer ‘glimpse into the future’ of carrier operations

17 November 2023
The largest uncrewed aircraft ever launched from a Royal Navy aircraft carrier has paved the way for the next generation of UK naval air power.

Codenamed ‘Mojave’, the specially-modified aircraft – operated remotely by a ‘pilot’ at a computer terminal – has taken-off from and safely landed back on board HMS Prince of Wales in a unique trial off the East Coast of the USA.

No crewless machine its size – nine metres long, with a wingspan of 17 metres (six metres wider than an F-35B Lightning stealth fighter) and weighing more than 1½ tonnes fully loaded – has ever flown from an aircraft carrier outside the US Navy before.

The trial off the coast of Virginia further unlocks the potential of the UK’s Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, demonstrating how modern uncrewed air systems can operate alongside fifth-generation crewed aircraft like the Lightnings.

“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,” said Rear Admiral James Parkin, Royal Navy Director Develop, whose team planned the trial.

“The success of this trial heralds a new dawn in how we conduct maritime aviation and is another exciting step in the evolution of the Royal Navy’s carrier strike group into a mixed crewed and uncrewed fighting force.”

The Royal Navy’s Second Sea Lord, Vice Admiral Martin Connell, said embracing autonomy was “the next logical step to ensuring that the Royal Navy can continue to fight and win in an increasingly-complex operating environment”.

He continued: “With so many international partners interested in the results of these Mojave trials on board HMS Prince of Wales, I am delighted that we are taking the lead in such exciting and important work to unlock the longer-term potential of the aircraft carrier and push it deep into the 21st Century as a highly-potent striking capability.”

My team and I are excited and proud to be the first to launch and land a Mojave from an aircraft carrier.

Commander Martin Russell

The Royal Navy has two decades’ experience in operating pilotless aircraft from its ships, but the Fleet Air Arm’s existing systems – such as the hand-launched Puma, and the new Peregrine miniature helicopter which enters service in January – are designed for short-range surveillance operations on land and at sea.

Mojave – a version of the MQ1C Gray Eagle aircraft adapted for short take-off and landing from runways even shorter than the flight deck of Queen Elizabeth-class carriers – is a much larger and more complex aircraft.

Produced by US company General Atomics, Mojave is capable of performing numerous long endurance missions from medium altitude.

It’s from the same family of aircraft as the Royal Air Force’s new Protector RG Mk1 aircraft, such ‘medium altitude long endurance’ remotely piloted aircraft are capable of conducting long-range surveillance and strike missions over many thousands of square miles.

Months of planning by experts from the Royal Navy, General Atomics and HMS Prince of Wales’ crew went into the trial – one of several involving crewless aircraft and F-35s this autumn to push the boundaries of operations involving the UK’s two carriers.

“My team and I are excited and proud to be the first to launch and land a Mojave from an aircraft carrier,” said Commander Martin Russell, in charge of air operations aboard HMS Prince of Wales.

“During a deployment centred around experimentation and expanding the envelope of the Queen Elizabeth class, this is one of the highlights.

“Integrating the Navy Develop and General Atomics personnel into the Prince of Wales team was key to enabling such a large Remotely Piloted Air System to operate from the deck during this trial, with the capability feeling like a glimpse into the future of these ships.”

HMS Prince of Wales is now conducting intense training and trials activity with the US Marine Corps before returning home to Portsmouth next month.

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