The UK Ministry of Defence will launch the assessment phase for its planned Project Crowsnest effort to replace the Royal Navy's Westland Sea King 7 surveillance helicopters during 2013, only three years before the current type's retirement from use.
"The Sea King Airborne Surveillance and Control (SKASaC) aircraft will be retired in 2016 when the Sea King fleet exits service in entirety," says minister for defence equipment, support and technology Philip Dunne. Assessment phase activities on a replacement capability will begin next year, he adds, but declines to estimate the programme's likely cost ahead of a main investment decision.
Responding to a parliamentary question on 19 November, Dunne said £18 million ($28.6 million) has already been spent on "relevant development work under predecessor projects".
With little time available to deliver a new system, the likelihood is that the UK will experience a capability gap - potentially of several years - in its ability to deliver organic airborne early warning services from its surface fleet. "If Crowsnest were not available immediately on retirement of SKASaC, other systems could provide a surveillance and control capability until such time as Crowsnest came into service," Dunne says.
The RN's Fleet Air Arm has an active inventory of 13 Sea Kings equipped with Thales Searchwater 2000 radars, says Flightglobal's Ascend Online Fleets database. Primarily developed for airborne early warning activities, the sensor has also delivered significant utility as an over-land surveillance asset in Afghanistan, and was employed during last year's NATO operation to protect Libyan civilians.
One of the aircraft recently deployed aboard the RN's new Type 45 anti-air warfare destroyer for the first time, with the surveillance asset operating from HMS Diamond in the Middle East.
Potential options to deliver the Crowsnest capability include a Thales proposal to integrate existing radars with some of the RN's AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin multimission helicopters, and a Lockheed Martin UK Integrated Systems/Northrop Grumman product development for the same platform named Vigilance.
Comprising one or two pod-mounted active electronically scanned array radars, the Vigilance system is due to perform flight trials in the UK with a Merlin from late this month, according to industry sources.