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Merlins receive £269m to convert them into the Navy’s ‘flying eyes’
16 January 2017

£269m is being pumped into the Merlin fleet so the helicopters can perform the role long carried out by Sea King Mk7s: the eyes of the fleet.

All 30 Merlin Mk2s will converted so they can serve as ‘baggers’, scouting for enemy aircraft, armour or shipping, as well as their more normal submarine-hunting role.

An artist's impression of a Crowsnest Merlin. Picture: Lockheed Martin

THE Navy’s ultimate submarine hunters will be turned into its ultimate eyes in the sky thanks to a £269m revamp of the Merlin fleet.

All 30 Merlin Mk2 helicopters – all based at Culdrose – will be converted to accommodate a high-tech radar suite – Crowsnest – acting as the long-range eyes of the Navy’s carriers of tomorrow, looking out for incoming enemy aircraft, warships or armour.

Aboard HMS Dragon – whose operations room team will use the information provided by Crownest crews – Defence procurement minister Harriett Baldwin announced the go-ahead for the programme, which will replace veteran Sea Kings Mk7s, also based at the Cornish air station.

The Sea Kings with their distinctive black radar sacks retire in the autumn of next year after extensive service, particularly over Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Sea King Mk7 on the deck of HMS Ocean with Merlin Mk2s in the Gulf

In their place, Lockheed Martin will oversee the Merlin conversion; Thales will provide the radar, sensors, computers and consoles crunching the data, and helicopter manufacturers Leonardo (formerly AgustaWestland) will adapt the airframes to accommodate the black bag which contains the Crowsnest radar and will stick out of the right side of the aircraft.

The work should sustain around 200 jobs in Havant, Crawley and Yeovil.

Crowsnest builds on the best of the technology from the existing Sea King Mk7 (SKASaC – pronounced ‘skay-zac’) and its Searchwater radar, adds to it with significant enhancements, takes on board the advice of crews with 15-plus years’ experience over land and sea, much of those spent in combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan and currently in the Gulf conducting force protection and surveillance for shipping.

The result is a modified Merlin Mk 2 with a radar dome on the side, but unlike its predecessor, the fact that the Crowsnest mission system is to be fitted when required,  allowing the Merlin to switch between anti-submarine and airborne surveillance roles.

And as with the Mk7, the new variant will require a crew of just three: one pilot, two observers. It will take about six months for SKASaC observers to convert to the new aircraft type (the fully-digital Merlin is a couple of generations ahead of the Sea King), while it should only take them about eight weeks to learn how to use the computer consoles which process the reams of data from the radar and sensors given their SKASaC experience. As for new aircrew, training for them should begin in the summer of 2019. Whether veterans or rookies, all will be instructed by 824 NAS at Culdrose.

Sea King ASaCs conduct training on RFA Argus

One of the key successes of the existing SKASaC helicopters has been updates to the mission system software every six months or so, taking on board suggestions for improvement/ enhancement from the aircrew, rather than leaving computer systems stuck back in 2001/02 when the Mk7 entered service; the result is that there shouldn’t be too big a step up to Crowsnest. At the same time, technicians and maintainers will be instructed by their colleagues on the Merlin training squadron, 824 NAS, on looking after the state-of-the-art helicopter.

The Sea Kings are due to retire in October next year – just shy of the helicopter’s 50th anniversary in the Fleet Air Arm – with 849 Naval Air Squadron in its current guise passing into history.

It will re-emerge, initially as a flight as part of the Merlin force in summer 2019 and eventually as a fully-fledged squadron, in the spring of 2020 when Crowsnest is due to be declared operational, ready  for Queen Elizabeth’s maiden carrier strike deployment scheduled for the following year.

“The Sea King ASaC has served us very well indeed,” said Cdr Simon Flynn, Sea King Force Commander and the man responsible for the changeover. “Crowsnest takes what we do with the SKASaC and builds on it. It’s absolutely crucial to the carrier strike group – critical for protecting the carrier and vital for strike operations. It’s an integral part of the force – you cannot have carrier strike without it.

“Everything we are doing now with the Sea King ASaC is done with HMS Queen Elizabeth, Prince of Wales and carrier task groups in mind.”