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Royal Navy Tests Largest-Ever Unmanned Aircraft on Carrier off Virginia

The Mojave in HMS Prince of Wales' hangar (Royal Navy)
The Mojave in HMS Prince of Wales' hangar (Royal Navy)

Published Nov 18, 2023 6:00 PM by Royal Navy News

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 meters long, with a wingspan of 17 meters (six meters wider than an F-35B Lightning stealth fighter) and weighing more than 1.5 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 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 centered around experimentation and expanding the envelope of the Queen Elizabeth class, this is one of the highlights."

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

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.