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PARIS: UK carrier's helicopter fleet comes to the fore

While the Lockheed Martin F-35B will inevitably be the main attraction of the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, the service is expecting the rotary fleet to really come into its own through the deployment of the AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin, plus other possible rotorcraft in the future.

It is currently residing at Rosyth in Scotland, and weather-dependent it will embark on the first phase of sea trials in coming weeks.

“HMS Queen Elizabeth is just about to sail, and I hope it will sail this month,” Rear Adm Keith Blount, assistant chief of naval staff (aviation, amphibious capability and carriers), told a media briefing at the show. “We’re now counting down the days to sail, opposed to the months.”

It will end up in Portsmouth by the end of the year, followed by rotary-wing testing in 2018. It will then transit to the east coast of the USA for trials of the F-35 by the end of 2018.

The RN’s future carrier strike group will consist of 24 F-35Bs deployed on-board the vessel, plus a blend of Merlins in both the standard and Crowsnest roles, although the carrier can carry up to 36 F-35B examples. Initial operational capability (IOC) for carrier strike is planned for 2020.

The Merlin’s new Crowsnest capability will be provided via the Thales-developed Searchwater radar and Cerberus mission system, which is expected to reach IOC with the RN in 2020, and full capability in 2021-2022.

“We’re proud to say the F-35B will be the aircraft of choice,” Blount says, although he stresses that it will have to work “in harmony” with the Merlins.

“Although we’ve been operating this [the Merlin] for years, I think we’ll soon see a purple patch where it really blooms,” he notes.

Merlin Mk3/4 variants will be initially used to support the UK’s equivalent of the carrier on-board delivery (COD) mission, until a decision is made on how to carry this out long-term. The Royal Air Force’s Boeing Chinooks could be utilised, or a new aircraft such as the Bell Boeing V-22.

The RN is considering buying the tiltrotors for this mission in alignment with the US Navy’s execution of COD – a V-22 can carry one F-35 engine – but is yet to make a decision on this.

“What I’m quite keen to do is get as many rotary-wing authorisations for the carrier [as possible],” Blount noted.

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