Leonardo Helicopters and Lockheed Martin UK have each been awarded contracts worth £1.8 million ($2.29 million) to evaluate how to keep the Royal Navy’s (RN’s) AW101 Merlin fleet operational until 2040.

Detailed on 4 July, the contract notifications from the Ministry of Defence order the two companies to “undertake a full review of and validation of the obsolescence issues anticipated to arise with the airframes and equipment, together with the associated training aids in the 2030+ timescale in order to extend the out-of-service date of the Merlin Mk2 and Mk4/4a aircraft”.

Merlin HC4-c-Crown Copyright

Source: Crown Copyright

Merlin HC4s are used by the Commando Helicopter Force

“Leonardo and Lockheed Martin are in the concept phase for the Merlin Out of Service Date Extension Programme, which we would anticipate to lead to a contract for the detailed assessment phase early next year,” the two companies state.

Previously, the RN’s 30 Merlin HM2s were due to retire in 2029, with the 25 Merlin HC4/4As set to follow a year later. However, these dates were extended to 2040 following the 2021 defence review.

Merlin HM2s are used for anti-submarine warfare missions – plus serve as an airborne surveillance and control platform for the RN’s aircraft carriers via the Crowsnest modification – while the HC4/4As are used as troop transports by the Commando Helicopter Force.

Both have received extensive modifications in recent years, raising them from their previous HM1 and HC3/3A standards; Leonardo Helicopters delivered the final HC4 rotorcraft in January this year.

Merlin HM2-c-Crown Copyright

Source: Crown Copyright

Life-extension programme will enable Merlins to continue in service until 2040

Although all the Merlins were built by Leonardo Helicopters in Yeovil, responsibility for the upgrade work was split: the UK airframer was in charge of HC4 conversion activities, while Lockheed was prime contractor for the HM2 project.

As a result, to address the future obsolescence issues, contracts are required with both companies as each has “the specific know-how, tools and equipment and access to the technical drawings, publications and manufacturing data” for the relevant helicopters.

“The procurement strategy taken is one where parallel, mirrored single-source contracts are to be with Leonardo Helicopters and Lockheed Martin”, says the notification.

“This aims to reduce the co-ordination risk seen in previous projects by establishing a Joint Project Office.”