RAF experimental drone squadron stalled by coronavirus

Harry Lye 1 April 2020 (Last Updated April 1st, 2020 17:09)

Air Force Technology understands that the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) has gone ahead with plans to reform its 216 Squadron experimental drone squadron. The new squadron has been stood up with minimal manning as the RAF still assesses how the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak will affect future manning and development plans.

RAF experimental drone squadron stalled by coronavirus
Image: RAF/ MOD Crown Copyright.

Air Force Technology understands that the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) has gone ahead with plans to reform its 216 Squadron experimental drone squadron. The new squadron has been stood up with minimal manning as the RAF still assesses how the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak will affect future manning and development plans.

Operating out of RAF Waddington as of today, 216 Squadron is set to take on the role of operating the RAF’s fleet of experimental drones. In January, Air Force Technology reported on the reforming of the squadron, which is expected in future to bring swarming drone capabilities into service.

The squadron’s equipment remains under testing and evaluation however it can already deliver some electronic warfare capabilities.

The swarming drones are designed to confuse enemy air defences and infrastructure, allowing conventional fighter jets like the F-35 or Eurofighter Typhoon to safely strike targets.

The reformation of the squadron has been overshadowed by the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) ongoing efforts to assist civilian authorities in response to the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. British Army personnel are working to supply logistics support to the NHS and the RAF is providing helicopter capabilities to assist in the transportation of patients.

216 Squadron will look to further develop its capabilities later in the year, however, the RAF is still assessing how the spread of Covid-19 will affect future plans, manning and timelines for developments.

216 Squadron is building on work from the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office. Previously the RAF told Air Force Technology that swarming drone technology in development exceeded expectations in trials and development.

The project was originally announced by then Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson last February. Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Williamson said: “I have decided to use the Transformation Fund to develop swarm squadrons of network-enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences. We expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of this year.”

216 Squadron has operated in several capacities, beginning life as part of the Royal Naval Air Service in 1917. Later, 216 Squadron moved to a transport-focused role during WW2, a role it reprised during the Falklands War, operating a fleet of Lockheed Tristar 500 aircraft, before being disbanded in 2014.