UK defence cuts to force Sea King 7 life extension

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The UK could be set to extend the service lives of its Royal Navy Westland Sea King 7 airborne surveillance and control system helicopters until 2022, because funding pressures look likely to force the deferral of its successor Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control programme.

Envisaged as a manned, network-enabled asset capable of providing assured airborne surveillance and command-and-control services to the RN, MASC will be the third component of the UK's future carrier strike capability, alongside two CVF-class aircraft carriers and Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - referred to in the UK as the Joint Combat Aircraft.

The previous planning assumption for MASC had been to migrate the Sea King 7's Thales Searchwater 2000 airborne early warning radar and Cerberus mission suite into 12 new-build AW101 Merlin airframes with minimum re-engineering. The current aircraft had been slated for replacement from 2018, but with intense pressure on equipment funding in the Ministry of Defence's current planning round, the MASC programme is likely to slip by five years.

The MoD and the RN are now planning a capability sustainment programme for the Sea King 7 that will maintain its operation and support through to a revised out-of-service date of 2022. The effort is expected to include communication system enhancements, such as the addition of twin VHF radios to meet Civil Aviation Authority requirements, plus the introduction of Mode 5/S identification friend-or-foe equipment.

The sustainment package could also include upgrades being embodied or studied in advance of a planned Sea King HC4 utility and potential ASaC system deployment to Afghanistan this year, including a defensive aids suite, night-vision goggles, uprated Rolls-Royce Gnome 1400-1T engines and Carson main rotor blades.

AgustaWestland has, meanwhile, delivered the RN's first of two Sea Kings to have been modified to the ASaC 7 standard to replace two aircraft lost in a mid-air collision off Iraq in March 2003, killing seven personnel.