The UK Royal Navy has stood up its first air squadron to operate AgustaWestland Merlin helicopters enhanced to the HM2 standard under a £750 million ($1.15 billion) upgrade programme.
Based at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall, training unit 824 Sqn has so far received five of the modified aircraft. These have been equipped with a new mission system and avionics suite in an effort headed by Lockheed Martin as part of the Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme (MCSP).
A further three helicopters configured for the anti-submarine warfare role will join the squadron in August. A first frontline unit, 820 Sqn, will then begin taking receipt of its Merlin HM2s in September.
Ground-based conversion training for the initial cadre of 820 Sqn pilots commenced in mid-July, with the last of their HM1s having already departed to receive the upgrades at AgustaWestland's Yeovil site in Somerset.
Speaking at a 23 July ceremony to mark the milestone at Culdrose, Cdre Andy Lison, representing the UK Defence Equipment & Support procurement agency, said the Merlin had now "come of age".
"It offers the force commander capability, flexibility and the all-important military edge," he says.
Alongside the improvements to the cockpit and mission system interface, increased modularity means the helicopter can be converted in about 2h 30min to other roles, such as casualty evacuation or troop transport. It also gains a door-mounted .50cal M3M machine gun for self-protection.
"It's now such a highly flexible aircraft that it gives the force commander a Swiss Army knife to do whatever they want with on any given day," says Jeff Streznetcky, managing director helicopter programmes for Lockheed Martin UK, which has led the upgrade project.
In all, 30 Merlins will receive the enhancements under the MCSP effort, a reduction of eight aircraft over the initial project proposal. No decision has been taken on the future of the surplus helicopters, but in the short term they are likely to be stored and used for spare components, says Lison.
Deliveries of the HM2 helicopters will continue until the end of 2014, with the final four aircraft to receive additional defensive suite upgrades to enable deployment in the Persian Gulf, says Lison.
Between now and the end of 2014, a number of software releases of "increasing maturity" will be rolled out, as systems such as the radar acoustics and mission suite are fine-tuned, he adds.
Initial operational capability is envisaged for the end of the first quarter of 2014, with full operational capability expected to be declared by the end of the same year.
So far, reaction from the crews to the new standard has been positive. Lt Cdr Tony Morris, one of 824 Sqn's qualified flight instructors for the variant, says: "The Mk1 feels a bit like a prototype cockpit, you certainly see the age of it when you get into the new aircraft."
An initial shipborne embarkation in UK waters aboard the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Argus is planned for November, to be followed by active deployment on a Type 23 frigate in 2014.
AgustaWestland has so far received 22 of the 30 helicopters at Yeovil.
Source: Flight International