The Merlins have been kitted out with new mission systems and radars from Thales Group by aerospace company Leonardo in Yeovil, overseen by Lockheed Martin.
Each helicopter has a crew of three: two observers (mission and tactical specialists) and one pilot. High above the fleet with their sophisticated sensors, they enable the carrier strike group commander to see, understand and react well beyond the horizon for any air or surface threats. They can also act as a control centre for strike operations between the carrier and the ship’s F-35 Lightning jets. They will be based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose.
The announcement came just in time for the operational Carrier Strike deployment in May, known as CGS21. HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to deploy to the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and into the Indo-Pacific region in an operational deployment with the UK’s allies and partners. Early reports casted doubts on the readiness of the Crowsnest capability following a delay in its initial operational capability (IOC). Our colleagues at Navy Lookout, however, are reporting that the three Crowsnest Merlins that will accompany the CGS21 deployment will carry pre-IOC sets which are not fully certified, although this should give at least basic capability – any limitations are obviously classified. Full IOC is scheduled for September 2021, with FOC in May 2023.
Commodore Steve Moorhouse, Commander UK Carrier Strike Group, who will direct HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first deployment with the help of his staff, said the new Merlins were the final pieces in the group’s large, complex jigsaw:
“It’s hugely encouraging to see the progress of the Crowsnest trials. Already one the most advanced submarine hunters, the Merlin Crowsnest will offer long-range intelligence and surveillance against surface and airborne threats, and the ability to command and control strike missions. Coupled with the Wildcat attack helicopter, the UK Carrier Strike Group will soon operate one of the most capable and versatile helicopter air groups.”
Commodore Steve Moorhouse, Commander UK Carrier Strike Group
Royal Navy’s Merlin Crowsnest AEW Helicopter
For the record, the British Ministry of Defense awarded a contract worth 269 million pounds to Lockheed Martin in January 2017 for the supply of ten Crowsnest kits for the British naval aviation. The kits are modular radar systems that may be fitted (and taken off) any of the 30 Leonardo AW101 Merlin HM.2 maritime helicopters fielded by the Royal Navy. The first Leonardo Merlin HM.2 helicopter fitted with the Crowsnest kit conducted its first flight in late March 2019 at the Leonardo Helicopters (formerly AgustaWestland) site of Yeovil.
The Merlin HM.2 helicopters equipped with this system will fly missions from British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth-class and are replacing Sea King ASaC.7 DRLO helicopters in the 849th Navy Aviation Squadron (which were all decommissioned in September 2018).
The developer and manufacturer of the Crowsnest system is the British branch of Lockheed Martin (Lockheed Martin UK), while Thales and Leonardo are subcontractors. Under the terms of the contract, the first Merlin HM.2 helicopter equipped with the Crowsnest kit was set to be commissioned in June 2019.
Initially, Lockheed Martin offered its own containerized Vigilance system as part of the Crowsnest program, using a multipurpose radar with AFAR based on the Northrop Grumman AN / APG-81 radar (used on the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter) or the Israeli IAI radar placed in an external onboard container Elta EL / M-2052. This system has been tested by Lockheed Martin since the end of 2011. However, in April 2015, Lockheed Martin, joining forces with Thales, proposed a more conservative and cheaper version of the Thales solution, which was originally proposed by the latter independently. It is an upgrade of the Cerberus radar system used by the Sea King ASaC.7 helicopters with modified Thales Searchwater 2000 AEW radar with mechanical scanning. In May 2015, this “budget” decision was chosen by the UK Department of Defense.