The UK Royal Navy has begun preparations for two new deployments that will provide improved helicopter support for coalition operations in Afghanistan and the Arabian Gulf region from early next year.

The RN's 814 NAS maritime attack squadron will deploy its six AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin HM1 helicopters aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious next January, marking the service's largest embarked deployment of the type.

"This is the first time we will get six [Merlin] aircraft to sea in a single platform, and it will test the capability," says Merlin force commander Cdr Steve Murray.

In advance of its deployment to the Gulf region, 814 NAS will soon begin working up on HMS Illustrious, with crews to hone their skills in the Merlin's core role of anti-submarine warfare in the North Atlantic. However, the sonar-equipped aircraft can also have its role adjusted within 2h to carry up to 11 fully equipped troops or eight stretchers. "Gone are the days when you can focus on a single role," says Murray.

The 814 NAS returned to RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall in mid-August, following a 15-month tour of duty that culminated with the unit performing maritime monitoring operations in the Gulf region, operating from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel RFA Fort Victoria.

The deployed Merlins are expected to carry L-3 Wescam MX-15 electro-optical/infrared sensors to assist in their surveillance operations, which navy sources suggest could include monitoring movements by Iranian submarines.

The RN carrier could also be used to deploy two of the service's Westland Sea King 7 airborne surveillance and control (ASaC) system helicopters and Boeing AV-8B Harrier strike aircraft from the Italian navy or US Marine Corps.

The RN is also making plans to deploy additional Sea King 7s to Afghanistan, where ground moving target indication imagery from the type's Thales Searchwater 2000 radar could be used to support ground forces during operations against the Taliban.

Still requiring approval from the UK's tri-service Joint Helicopter Command, the deployment could cover the delayed availability of the UK's Raytheon Systems-developed Sentinel R1 airborne stand-off radar aircraft, the ground stations for which could be deployed operationally for the first time next year.

"The profile of the ASaC force is going up and up in defence," says a senior RN official, who confirms that the type is being considered for operations from Kandahar airfield. "We are hoping to deploy into Afghanistan, and are preparing a squadron," the source says. The navy already plans to deploy some of its Sea King HC4 amphibious support helicopters to the country late this year.