The Royal Navy is looking towards the Unmanned Warrior exercise that will take place later this year to assess “all options” for the replacement of its Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle unmanned air vehicles, which will go out of service in late 2017.

Procured under a two-year urgent operational requirement (UOR) contract in June 2013 to support operations in Afghanistan, the navy’s ScanEagle contract has since been renewed – but limitations to further renewals mean the system will leave UK service at the end of next year.

The RN has recognised the advantages an unmanned aerial surveillance asset offers for at-sea operations, the service tells FlightGlobal, and “funding options for a replacement are being explored”. However, this does not necessarily mean a similar capability will be procured, and the RN will look at a range of systems during Unmanned Warrior, including both rotary and fixed-wing systems.

“Whilst the ScanEagle decision will not be reversed, the Royal Navy sees unmanned air systems as integral to future operations,” the service says. “Unmanned Warrior later this year confirms this commitment, whilst providing an opportunity to inform replacement decisions in an increasingly advanced, competitive and important market.”

The RN says its ScanEagle will not participate in the exercise, partly due to its deployed commitments in the Middle East, but also because it considers that the technology in it is now considered out-of-date. However, the newer version of ScanEagle – which includes a multi-intelligence payload capability – will be demonstrated by Insitu, the company says. An Orbital heavy-fuel engine is also being introduced into the system through various block upgrades, which could be appealing to the service.

It is expected that a replacement system will be taken into core service with the UK, and not acquired via a UOR arrangement.

ScanEagle launch - Crown Copyright

Crown Copyright

Currently, one operational system is deployed on rotation to the Gulf region at any given time. ScanEagle operations have been praised by the RN, although it recognises the system's limitations, such as its lack of a search and find capability.

“It’s a small area in which it is operating, but even within its own limitations, the capabilities it brought were incredible,” Rear Adm Keith Blount, assistant chief of the naval staff for aviation, amphibious capability and carriers, told a navy conference last year.

With operations to cease towards the end of 2017 a capability gap is likely to be experienced, and it is not clear if the navy will look to operate a UAV on a contractor service basis to fill the void.