The UK Royal Navy will field a new-generation organic airborne early warning capability in 2019, three years after it retires the last of its aged Westland Sea Kings currently tasked with protecting its surface fleet.

Dubbed Crowsnest, the project to replace the Fleet Air Arm’s Sea King Mk7 airborne surveillance and control system helicopters had previously been due to deliver its first adapted AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin HM2s for service trials from 2020, but only to achieve full operational capability in 2022.

“The introduction of Crowsnest 18 months early will ensure HMS Queen Elizabeth has the full range of capabilities when it enters service,” says defence secretary Philip Hammond, referring to the RN’s first of two new 60,000t aircraft carriers. The decision to accelerate the system’s availability formed part of an annual review into the UK armed forces’ 10-year equipment plan out to 2022, the Ministry of Defence says.

In a statement issued on 3 February, the MoD also confirmed that a competition to provide the modified Merlin’s AEW mission suite will be between Lockheed Martin and Thales UK. As prime contractor for the HM2 upgrade, Lockheed will oversee a £24 million ($39 million) programme “to design, develop and demonstrate Crowsnest”, with this activity to conclude by 2016.

Nicknamed “Baggers” due to the distinctive configuration of their AEW radome fit, the UK’s last Sea King Mk7s are due to be retired in March 2016.

Source: Flight International