Lockheed Martin UK has rebuffed claims of costliness and over-complexitylevelledat its bid for the UK’s Crowsnest requirement by Thales UK, its rival for the £500 million ($770 million) contest, which is now entering its final stages.
The winner is to supply 10 radar and role-fit mission system kits to allow conversion of the Royal Navy’s AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin HM2 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters into an airborne early warning (AEW) platform.
A fleet of aged Sea King 7 airborne surveillance and control (ASaC) rotorcraft currently provide the latter capability, but these will finally be retired from service in 2018.
Thales UK proposes adapting and modernising the Cerberus mission system and Searchwater 2000 mechanically scanned array radar used by the Sea Kings.
Lockheed’s solution, known as Vigilance, is more complex. It proposes a pair of "fifth-generation" Elta Systems-made active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, each using two arrays, mounted in pods on either side of the helicopter, coupled with its ASW consoles, which are already installed in the Merlin HM2.
Roll-on, roll-off equipment racks are mounted on the helicopter’s existing seat rails and a pre-installed software cartridge in the existing ASW consoles will recognise the switch to the AEW mission, says Younus Mustafa, airborne military solutions director at the firm’s Integrated Systems business. It claims the helicopter can be swapped between roles in just 3h.
And Mustafa dismisses suggestions that its AESA-based bid would be an unreliable “technology demonstrator” when used on the Merlin, describing it as a "low-risk solution".
“You would struggle to go any major supplier in the world and find one that is not working on an AESA radar to combat the next generation of threats,” he says.
“[Mechanically scanned array] radars were developed for threats in the 1980s; we are now developing a radar for threats that are out there in the next 10-15 years.”
He argues that the capability enhancement offered by the AESA-based sensors and the new mission system – which features a number of operator "decision aids" such as the sensor correlation engine from the US Navy's Lockheed/Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk –- makes its bid the more compelling.
“We have looked at the customer’s requirements and the capability they require and developed an AESA radar solution that meets them,” he says.
With the life of the Merlin HM2 variant potentially extending all the way to 2040, Mustafa sees its offer as a way to "future-proof" the helicopters while also reducing whole-life costs.
Flight trials using the Vigilance pods were conducted from July to November 2014 at partner Qinetiq’s Boscombe Down facility in the southwest of the UK. In all, some 22h of flight time was amassed across 11 sorties and the pods, which weigh slightly more than a standard torpedo load, “had no adverse effects on the handling of the aircraft”.
Thales has promised early delivery of full operational capability (FOC) of its solution, but Lockheed says it will match that timeline, reaching the FOC milestone a full 12 months in advance of the UK defence ministry’s 2018 deadline. All its individual systems are at technology readiness level 7, notes Mustafa.
“Cerberus is a good system and it has served the navy well over the last 20 years, but we looked at it and thought new technology was the best way for the navy to address future threats,” he says.
Vigilance also has export potential, he says, with several “international parties” already interested.
The Ministry of Defence is expected to reveal its choice early in the second quarter.