The UK Ministry of Defence has yet to decide how many of the Royal Air Force's AgustaWestland Merlin HC3/3A transports will be upgraded for use by the Royal Navy's Commando Helicopter Force.
"The Merlin life sustainment programme is currently in its assessment phase," says minister for defence equipment, support and technology Philip Dunne. "This is considering options to enhance the Merlin Mk3/3A aircraft's ability to support amphibious operations, including the number of platforms to be upgraded and the nature of the upgrade."
Currently flown by the RAF, but to be transferred to the RN in 2014-15 due to a pending increase in the size of the former's Boeing CH-47 Chinook fleet, the upgraded Merlins will replace the navy's remaining Westland Sea King HC4/4+ aircraft, which are due to leave use during 2016. The air force has a current active inventory of 27 Merlins, with the type (HC3 variant pictured below) flown by its 28 and 78 squadrons.
Meanwhile, Dunne confirms that the MoD has a "broad planning assumption" for the RN's Crowsnest project to field a new airborne surveillance and control (ASaC) helicopter fleet to be available as part of its new carrier strike capability during 2020. However, he notes: "Crowsnest has not yet passed its main investment decision point, and it would therefore be inappropriate to comment on its specific in-service date."
To be integrated with some of the navy's upgraded Merlin HM2 multimission helicopters, the next-generation airborne early warning and surveillance system will replace the service's Sea King 7 ASaC aircraft. The UK National Audit Office recently warned of a potential four-year capability gap following the latter fleet's planned retirement during 2016.