During a test in September, a drone flew on and off a British aircraft carrier for the first time.
The Royal Navy's plan is for drones to carry cargo to carriers, freeing helicopters for other missions.
Several other Western militaries are making similar plans to add drones to their carrier air wings.
In September, a drone delivered cargo to the aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales before flying back to the British mainland, performing the first test of its kind for the Royal Navy.
The British navy hopes to eventually deploy drones with its carrier strike groups and use them to transfer supplies between vessels, allowing the manned helicopters that perform that mission to conduct other operations, including protecting the carrier group from submarines and surface vessels.
The drone flight, which Capt. Richard Hewitt, commanding officer of HMS Prince of Wales, called a "fantastic milestone," demonstrates how drones are quickly moving toward a bigger role in carrier aviation.
A difficult operation
The drone used in the test was a short-takeoff-and-landing model built by the British firm W Autonomous Systems.
The drone can carry cargo weighing 220 pounds to a range of about 620 miles. It can remain aloft for up to 12 hours and has an autopilot system that allows it to operate without input from a remote pilot, according to the company.
The firm also says the drone needs about 500 to 600 feet of space to take off and land, meaning it can operate from relatively short runways like those on an aircraft carrier. (HMS Prince of Wales' overall length is a little over 900 feet.)
In a Royal Navy press release about the test, Hewitt said that "operating autonomous drones like this will become the norm across future Royal Navy Carrier Strike Groups in our 50-year lifespan."
The flight was "a vital step" toward "operating crewless aircraft safely alongside F-35 Lightning jets and naval Merlin and Wildcat helicopters which are currently the backbone of the Fleet Air Arm," the release said.
Lt. Ash Loftus, who led the testing aboard HMS Prince of Wales, said carrier aviation is one of "the most difficult aspects of naval warfare" and that the success of the tests "is testament" to the 18 months of work of Royal Navy sailors and W Autonomous Systems.
HMS Prince of Wales has been the site of other drone testing. In 2021, the Royal Navy tested a drone system meant to help crews train to defend against incoming jets and missiles.
"This is an extremely exciting time for maritime aviation and the future of the Fleet Air Arm," the chief of Royal Navy Air Test and Evaluation said after the 2021 tests.
Western militaries are increasingly focused on incorporating drones into their fleets.
Turkey's navy will soon add TCG Anadolu, the world's first aircraft carrier designed for a drone air wing. The US Air Force and Navy also envision fleets of unmanned aircraft carrying out a number of roles alongside their piloted planes.
The US Air Force's Next Aircraft Dominance Program is developing a sixth-generation family of aircraft, drone wingmen designed to fly alongside piloted planes. The Air Force is also developing collaborative combat aircraft, which officials say pilots will be able control to conduct a number of missions that extend their range and reduce their workload.
The US Navy has been flying small drones from its ships for years. These aircraft, like the MQ-8B and MQ-8C unmanned helicopters, mainly operate from frigates and littoral combat ships and conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.
The Navy is also developing the MQ-25 Stingray aerial-refueling drone for its aircraft carriers. In addition to freeing up the F/A-18 fighter jets that currently perform carrier-borne aerial-refueling missions, the MQ-25 could eventually take on other roles, like intelligence-gathering.
The Stingray, which is scheduled to deploy in 2026, will be the first purpose-built carrier-based drone but it won't be the last. The US Navy aims for 60% of its carrier wing fleet to be unmanned by 2045.
Incorporating unmanned aircraft into carrier operations alongside manned planes and helicopters will be challenging.
"Naval aviation is an exacting job with little to no margin for error, particularly when it comes to carrier landings," Alex Hollings, an aviation expert and journalist, told Insider.
"With the landing deck sometimes pitching by as much as 30 feet with the waves, carrier landings are often hard enough to seriously damage ordinary aircraft, and things only get worse at night or in poor weather," Hollings said, adding that a study of Navy pilots during the Vietnam War showed their heart rates were more elevated just before night landings on a carrier than when trying to shake incoming surface-to-air missiles.
Despite those difficulties, expanded use of drones is likely to have a number of benefits for navies.
Compared to carrier aircraft like the F/A-18 or F-35, uncrewed aircraft tend to have lower operating costs and to require less equipment and fewer personnel, Hollings told Insider. "That makes them a bit more flexible when it comes to repositioning them across ships or even theaters."
"They usually have better endurance than crewed aircraft, even while piloted remotely, because crews can transition in and out. Getting rid of the crew onboard allows for lower overall weight or allocating more weight to fuel, cargo, or payload," Hollings added. "And the biggest benefit is the reduced risk to human operators."
Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master's degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. You can contact him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.
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