Further details of the UK Royal Navy's Crowsnest next-generation airborne early warning programme have been disclosed by the nation's Ministry of Defence, with the effort expected to have a maximum cost of around £500 million ($782 million).
Aiming to provide replacements for the Fleet Air Arm's current Westland Sea King 7 airborne surveillance and control system helicopters, Crowsnest recently entered a second assessment phase. This is concerned with candidate radars and mission systems to be installed aboard eight upgraded AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin HM2 rotorcraft from later this decade.
Merlin HM2 programme prime contractor Lockheed Martin is offering its Vigilance mission suite, combined with a Northrop Grumman radar for Crowsnest, while Thales is promoting an update of its Cerberus system and Searchwater 2000 sensor already used with the Sea King 7. Elta Systems and Selex ES are also offering radars for the requirement, according to evidence given to the UK Public Accounts Committee by MoD officials earlier this year.
In a report about the UK's future carrier strike capability published on 3 September, the committee voiced concern that the Crowsnest system is not scheduled to achieve full operational capability until 2022 - two years after the expected initial use of the RN's first Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier with deployed Lockheed F-35B combat aircraft.
Service trials with the selected system would commence in 2020, the MoD says, with initial operational capability to be declared late the same year. "By the time we get to 2020 we will own four Crowsnest helicopters, of which two would be available to deploy in extremis," deputy chief of defence staff (military capability) Air Marshal Stephen Hillier told the committee. Prior to achieving a full carrier strike capability, the UK "would be working alongside allies and would be able to share capabilities", he notes.
The MoD expects to launch a third assessment phase activity next year, and to make a main gate investment decision for the Crowsnest system in 2017. The programme is expected to have a total cost ranging between £230 million and around £500 million, it says.
Flightglobal's Ascend Online Fleets database records the Fleet Air Arm as having 12 radar-equipped Sea King 7s in active service. Their use will come to an end in March 2016, when the MoD will also retire all remaining examples of the aged transport and search and rescue asset.