Royal Navy works to add more capability to Merlin fleet

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Even as the first batch of AgustaWestland Merlin HM2s enter service with the Royal Navy's 824 Sqn, two additional upgrade programmes for the type are under evaluation by the UK Ministry of Defence.

Both are designed to help the service cope with the retirement of its Westland Sea Kings from 2016 and consequent loss of capability.

Most urgently, the MoD is considering the conversion of 25 Merlin HC3/3A helicopters currently operated by the Royal Air Force into a marinised HC4 variant for use by the navy's Commando Helicopter Force from 2014-2015.

A business case for the programme has been presented to the MoD, says Cdre Andy Lison, of the Ministry's Defence Equipment & Support organisation, with a decision expected by year-end. However, navy crews have already begun conversion courses at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire.

 credit - crown copyright

 Crown Copyright

Changes to the HC3 will include a folding tail boom and rotor blades to make it ship capable, with a number of additional modifications "to take out obsolescence", says Lison. AgustaWestland would lead the manufacturing and development phase.

The other capability gap the navy is seeking to plug with the Merlin is the airborne surveillance and control (ASaC) mission currently performed by its Sea King 7s.

It has launched a contest, dubbed Crowsnest, to equip the multimission HM2 fleet for the ASaC role. Lockheed Martin is overseeing the effort under an initial £3 million ($4.6 million) contract awarded in 2012.

Although all 30 of the upgraded helicopters will be able to perform the task, courtesy of the Lockheed-built Vigilance mission suite fitted as part of the Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme, only 10 of the ASaC systems - from either Lockheed or Thales - will be purchased.

credit - crown copyright 

Crown Copyright 

Lockheed proposes the addition of active electronically scanned array radar pods to either side of the aircraft to provide 360˚ coverage, says Paul Tasker, capture executive at the company. These would take about 2-3h to fit, he says.

Both companies will now provide test systems for an 18-month evaluation phase, advanced from an initial period of 24 months, likely to be carried out at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.

The RN aims to field the Crowsnest system from 2020 as part of its carrier strike capability.