Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Merlin progress - UPDATE with AEW squadron plan

Merlin for the Royal Marines

846 NAS is training with the Merlin HC3 with the aim of going out to sea soon. According to ADS Advance, the plan is to have them having their first sortie at sea before Christmas, presumably on board of HMS Ocean, due to RFA Argus being deployed to Sierra Leone in support of Operation Gritrock, the british intervention against ebola.
There is not much time left, if the plan is still in place, so their debut at sea might be truly imminent.

846 NAS has re-formed in September in RAF Benson, with 10 helicopters and 14 crews, for a total of 28 pilots. Over 300 aircrew and engineers from the Royal Navy have been training in Benson from 2012 to reach this moment. 846 NAS will remain in Benson for a while still, working alongside the remaining RAF Merlin squadron, 28(AC) Sqn. The squadron is expected to relocate to Yeovilton by Easter 2015, and next year 845 NAS should also gradually take Merlin in, with 28(AC) disbanding. 845 NAS should reform in August 2015, operating at least for a few months with a mix of Merlin and Sea King.

The Merlin is handed over from RAF to RN; september 2014

25 Merlin HC3 (the HC3 is the original RAF variant, known by Agusta Westland as AW101-411; 22 were originally purchased) and 3A (built for Denmark with an enhanced mission fit including a nose modified to take a LOAM low flying collision avoidance sensor; known as AW101-512, they have been purchased by the MOD for a UOR and used for training in the UK to increase the number of deployable HC3s available) are transfering from the RAF to the Fleet Air Arm, and they are all due to be life-extended, upgraded and navalized under a GBP455 million contract.
In order to maintain a core of operational capability constantly available, this process and the withdrawal of Sea King HC4 are organized in phases.

One of the first few Merlin HC3 in Royal Navy markings, by P_H_images

Phase 1 began in October 2014, and includes the partial navalization of 7 helicopters. These will receive a manual folding rotor head, lashing down points, upgraded undercarriage and fast rope harnesses, to be suitable, at least partially, for use on ships and in support of Royal Marines operations. All 7 helicopters, to be known as HC3i (Interim) should be operational by April 2016, when the last Sea King HC4 (no more than 11 remain in service, used by 845 NAS) will be withdrawn from service.

Phase 2 will involve the full navalization and upgrade of a first batch of 9 helicopters, to be uplifted to HC4/4A standard. The HC4 adds an electrically folding tail boom and a cockpit upgraded at HM2 standard as well as a new Tactical Mission System by General Dynamics UK, partially common with the one of the Wildcat. These 9 helicopters should be fully operational by February 2020, and there have been earlier indications of HC4 deliveries beginning in September 2017. Following trials, HC4 IOC with up to 7 helicopters could be achieved during 2018.

HM2's shiny new glass cockpit

Phase 3 will uplift all remaining helicopters to HC4/4A standard, including the 7 HC3i. Deliveries are to be completed by March 2022.
The Commando Helicopter Force will have a total of 37 crews for the 25 Merlin by the end of the transition from Sea King.

A number of Merlin HC3 deployed to Albania this year to work with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines during Albanian Lion 2014. Hopefully we'll see the HC3 on ships soon.

It will be quite a long transition period, which will keep the Royal Marines short of fully ship-compatible helicopters for a long period.


The HM2 Merlins have achieved operational capability early, and have been through months of very intense training, culminating in exercise Deep Blue, which saw, for the first time in many years, a full ASW squadron of 9 helicopters embarked on HMS Illustrious to fend off the attacks of british and french SSNs and of Dutch diesel submarines.

The Merlin HM2 squadron of exercise Deep Blue

Deep Blue was also a chance to test the Merlin HM2 night capabilities, with the NVG available (finally) to the crew. Here is HMS Richmond seen at night.

The Royal Navy now plans for a fleet of 30 HM2 which will try to sustain a forward available fleet of 25 at any one time, with the other 5 in maintenance.
Of these 30, up to 14 will be embarking at once on the aircraft carrier when deployed, so that the task group can line both a 9-strong ASW squadron and a 4 to 5 strong AEW component (see CROWSNEST further down in the article).
In addition, the Merlin fleet will also be required to sustain at least 5 Small Ship Flights for operations on frigates and destroyers.

HM2 have been carrying on Stingray drops in Falmouth bay as well
The Royal Navy is consequently still hoping to be able to fund the HM2 upgrade for a further 2 to 8 Merlin. The HM1 fleet numbers 38 operational machines and 4 airframes in storage / cannibalised for spares.
30 helicopters are being upgraded to HM2, but the option for 8 more was at one point dropped. However, the Royal Navy now hopes to be able to obtain 2 to 8 more HM2 machines, and a decision might be taken before the year ends.

A busy HMS Illustrious in ex Deep Blue
By February 2015, all squadrons (824, 820, 814 and 829) will have converted to the HM2. 


The important AEW capability for the fleet will be a Merlin HM2 task as well, once Sea King is retired. IOC for CROWSNEST is expected in 2019, while the last Sea King ASaC Mk 7 will be withdrawn by September 30, 2018.
The Sea King ASaC force will be downsized quickly in the coming months, and probably it will soon be down to the sole 849 NAS. The number of operational helicopters will be further reduced from 11 to 7 in the forward fleet, and one in reserve. However, this beats by far the earlier plan of having the ASaC going out of service in 2016, with an AEW coverage gap for 3 to 4 years.

CROWSNEST is a programme lead by Lockheed Martin as Main Contractor due to its role in delivering the upgraded mission system used by the Merlin HM2.
Lockheed Martin is also a contender for the requirement: teaming with Elta, they are offering the VIGILANCE radar pods. The pod contains a Elta AESA radar complete with power and cooling system, IFF interrogator and ESM: The pod is carried in place of the torpedo pylons, and only needs a single point power and data connection to the helicopter: the mission system is already compatible with the HM2 software and consoles.

A Thales team is offering a new upgrade of the CERBERUS system used on the Sea King Mk 7, with the Searchwater radar carried inside the well known inflatable "bag" radome. Up to DSEI 2013, the Thales offer involved installing the radar, upgraded to deliver greater detection capabilities, on rails added on the starboard middle fuselage of the Merlin HM2s. After take off, when the undercarriage is folded away, the bag would slide down the rails so that the radar hangs below the helicopter, from where it has unobstructed 360° field of view.
In 2014 the design seems to have been tweaked doing away with the rails and adopting instead an hinge which swings the radar beneath the fuselage. The hinge assembly would go on the weapon pylon station, and from the CGI it appears a cleaner installation. The inflatable radome used on the Sea King MK7 might also be replaced with a solid radome.

Both systems are already being test flown from Boscombe Down, and the two rival bids are expected to be filed in by the end of January 2015. A selection of the winning bid is due in the first quarter of 2015. Operations should begin in 2018 and reach IOC during 2019. Thales has repeatedly said they believe they can deliver operational capability quicker than that, while LM has not been as talkative so far about the progress of the VIGILANCE trials.

The 2014 Thales offer as shown in a CGI by flightglobal.com.

A model showing the Thales solution and the rails on the fuselage, as shown at DSEI 2013

Merlin HM2 with Thales CROWSNEST payload seen in the sky over Wiltshire in november 2014

Rick Ingham shot this great photo of Merlin HM2 ZH831 fitted with two VIGILANCE pods for CROWSNEST trials. Photo from airplane-pictures.net; @ Rick Ingham

So far, the plan has been described as including the purchase of 10 AEW mission fits and the modification of all 30 Merlin HM2 to enable quick installation and removal of the system. Any helicopter in the fleet could thus move from ASW to AEW role in hours.

The new consoles of the HM2, with the large Barco displays, is suitable for displaying AEW data when CROWSNEST is in use

The concept seems brilliant, but i'm very much of the opinion that the Royal Navy, if it manages to fund the upgrade of 8 more helicopters, would better be served by removing the ASW kit from them and fitting them out to serve as AEW platforms full time, in a separate squadron.
My suspect is that the vast and precious range of capabilities and competencies of the very different arts of ASW and AEW cannot be mixed in the same crew. Perhaps the helicopters can be made capable to take the kit as quickly as promised, but the AEW and ASW specialists will, i believe, stay as two separate families.
Modifying a smaller number of helicopters for CROWSNEST transport and having them in their own squadron continues to look to me as the best solution.

UPDATE: there will indeed be an AEW squadron. The Royal Navy today announced that 849 NAS, as well as going ahead solo with the Sea King MK7 up to March 2018, will then continue as a Merlin HM2 squadron operating CROWSNEST.

854 NAS is being re-absorbed into 849 NAS as "Normandy Flight", and 857 NAS will revert to Flight identity, taking the name "Palembang Flight", with formal decommissioning in the new year.
849 NAS will carry on as a frontline squadron with 3 Flights, one presumably with training function and two operational flights. The third flight is expected to be called "Okinawa" after one of 849's battle honours.

A sensible organization, which reflects my expectations. Now, if it was possible to go ahead with the last 8 Merlin to upgrade them and use them in the AEW squadron, that would be a very good development.


  1. Just a couple of questions.

    Was slightly surprised to hear 846 might be going to Yeovilton. I thought the intention was to centralise the fleet at Culdrose with Wildcats being based at Yeovilton?

    Also, any news that Merlin could be given a bit of a bigger punch? At the very least I would have thought it capable of carrying the new Sea Venom? Even better wouldn't it have the carrying capacity for even punchier anti-shipping missiles such as Joint Strike Missile or SLAM-ER. Both would give it a powerful stand-off anti-shipping capability hat could operate well out of range of any shipborne SAMs.

    1. Longer term, there is an idea to perhaps have all the Merlin in Culdrose, and have Merlin training all together in the Navy's Merlin training facility (the HC3 simulators and classrooms are at Benson right now, obviously). But these plans have yet to shape up.

      And unfortunately, no, there's no indication of a wider fit of EO/IR turrets and integration of missiles. That will remain an obvious HM2 shortcoming.

  2. Nice article, Thanks.

    WOW those Vigilance pods got big?

    I’m assuming part of that is spacer to extend the AESA out beyond the “wings” of the Merlin. Not quite as dainty as some of the nice mock-ups we saw a few years back.

    I’m a little dismayed that the plan to adopt a podded F35 AESA has gone out the window. ( I’m absolutely sure there are very good reasons for this, and Crowsnest delay is not really acceptable ). But the logistics and maintenance never mind possible Electronic warfare possibilities would have been good.


    1. I was surprised myself at first, but it is probably due to using a larger radar array and having it capable to mechanically tilt to the sides to have genuine 360° capability.
      The F-35 radar (by the way, it was never confirmed it was going to be exactly the same radar, just a family member of the AN/APG-80 series) is not very large, and for AEW role a larger antenna is desirable. Also, early graphics suggested the AESA array would be fixed, and this is likely to limit field of view to 120° or so, which would leave big coverage gaps ahead and behind of the Merlin. I believe the larger pods and the Elta radar fix these shortcomings.

    2. I think the earlier sketches/models also implied the processing units were inside the aircraft which isn't so conducive to switching quickly from role to role. Now it truly looks fully contained within the pod (except for the consoles).

      PS great blog, congratulations

    3. Thank you, glad you enjoy the read.

    4. It was reported in Jane's International Defence Review in July that Thales decided to drop the rail mounted radar arrangement in favour of a simpler hinged antenna fit on the port weapon station. Matt Avision from Thales UK is quoted as saying that it is less weight and allows the radar radome to drop down lower beneath the fuselage providing a better unobstructed view for the antenna. It certainly looks like a more elegant solution. This new design is being flight tested, as I think is shown in your photo.

    5. Might be, i had not heard about that. I wish there was a good photo of the hinge... it probably will arrive, sooner rather than later. Plenty of good spotters always around, after all.

    6. There is an article in Flightglobal ("Thales nears flight tests for Royal Navy Crowsnest bid" 10 Sept 2014) that shows a computer generated image of the new arrangement.

    7. Thank you for that, added a few lines about it in the article.

    8. Also a nice photo of the Vigilance pod in flight here: http://www.janes.com/article/33332/uk-accelerates-crowsnest-to-plug-surveillance-gap-for-new-carriers

  3. Another scandalous cut in the SH area which should be one of the priorities. Another Chinook Squadron badly needed to try and fill some of the gap, hopefully one of the disbanded Merlin units.

    Using scarce HM2's for AEW and ASW too much of a drain, I agree that a dedicated Squadron is needed.

    Meanwhile, I read of possible Russian Subs lurking off Scotland and Great Britain having to ask for help from other NATO members! A disgraceful state of affairs for a P5 member, but as long as the vast majority of the public care not a jot, which most don't, then HMG won't care too much either.

    1. We are not surprised by the absence of MPA causing concern, that's for sure. It was obvious, obvious all along that it would come to this eventually.

    2. Dear Gabriele

      Nice post to clarify the Merlin situation. Thanks a lot.

      How is the MPA replacement program proceeding? Addition of 8 Merlin HM2 upgrade for AEW role is very nice, I agree. However, I'm afraid the MPA issue is much critical.

      I know the MPA cost will be an order of magnitude higher than upgrading 8 HM1s to HM2a, and thus the two issues is not directly related. However, since both program has the name of "ASW" and "surveillance", I'm just afriad the politicians will not take care of the difference.

      (following is just my personal fantasy, I admit...)

      In Japan, we are starting to buy brand-new P-1 MPA, although we sitll have many P-3Cs in reserve (I think it is waste of money, i.e. to early to buy, but it will continue). These P-3Cs with small amount of proper update, can fly another 15 years or more. In Britain, you lack MPA capability.

      By the way, in Japan, we lack AWACS. We currently only have 4 and the APY-2 rader is no more in production, so we cannot increase its number. In place, we are buying E-2Ds for a moment. In Britain, you have 7 AWACSs and "1 of them is in reserve" (to my understanding).


      Is it possible to "exchange", say, 4 P-3Cs with 1 AWACS system? We need the rader system, but not the airframe, so RAF can use it for crew training. Or even double this number, 8 P-3C for 2 AWACS system.

      I know this is a "fantasy", but 3 years ago, these idea was "surely impossible", not just fantasy, in Japan. Government said we cannot sell any military equipments abroad. Now, the situation are going to change a little... (of course we need US to agree...)

      Just in case...

      Donald of Tokyo

  4. Things seem to be progressing well on the Merlin front, although i'm still staggered to read the 2022 date for the finalization of the switch of cabs from the RAF to the RN, over 10 years to navalise some helicopters!

    To be honest i'm still rather bemused and saddened by the collective Puma/Merlin cock-up.

    I'm still waiting for someone to convince me that spending hundreds of millions on updating old and soon to be retired Puma's and giving the RAF Merlin's to the RN for another few hundred million in terms of refitting and adapting them was the best possible solution.

    It's obvious to me that the RAF should have ditched Puma and kept 20 odd Merlin's as it's medium sized, medium lift helicopter during the 2010 SDSR with the huge chunk of money saved going into buying 25-30 off the shelf cabs (be it more Merlin or something else) to replace the Sea King in the 'Commando' troop-lift role.

    Probably would have had everything done a lot quicker than the current 'plan' and saved a bit of cash to put into something else.

    1. P.S

      Money saved that could have been spent by the RAF on getting a 4th Chinook squadron operational and by the RN on upgrading all 8 spare Merlin's to HM2 standard and designating them as a separate squadron for Crowsnest (leaving 30 other HM2's to more comfortably focus on ASW).

      Both priorities in my view.

    2. Honestly, i've never understood why they haven't done that, indeed. With the HC2 and HC3 upgrades/navalisation budgets combined, i'd think a decent number of helicopters could be purchased. It might have to do with the money being available only piecemeal, over so many years. Might have made it hard to fit any real purchase program in due to lack of flexibility on when to committ to the purchase. Don't know. There must be something behind this. I hope. Something that makes sense.

    3. I really hope a more logical explanation to the Puma/Merlin situation will emerge than is currently evident.

      You could be right when you mention piecemeal budgets. However it doesn't seem impossible to me that a trickle buy of some off the shelf solution could have been pursued, it wouldn't have meant any slower a build up of the Commando fleet than we are currently seeing!

      Sadly too late now though, although i have seen today that Puma's will replace the 3 Chinook's left in Afghanistan as training and security support soon and 2025 is now being touted as an OSD instead of 2022. Plus we will hopefully see more than 2 extra Merlin's upgraded to HM2 capability.

      A very thin silver lining to an otherwise depressing situation.

    4. Not sure I follow your math. The Navy is getting 25 extended life, upgraded and navalized Merlin HC3 & 3A's for 455 million or 18 million each. I don't think they could have got new Merlins for anywhere near that price or even the much less capable NH90 either.

    5. Another 300 - 330 millions from Puma upgrade, though, give a reasonable theoric budget of 785 million pounds, almost a billion euro. Instead of upgrading Puma, the RAF could have kept its Merlin, and the RN could have purchased new ones, navalized already as they were produced.

      Italy's very latest HH-101, the ultra kitted out CSAR variant of the AW-101, is costing 740 million euro for 15, all in. Even with CSAR and SF pricetag, some 20 brand new Merlin could have been purchased, in theory, with the RAF keeping the HC3 and 3A as they are, instead of Puma.

      It is true that, at some point, the HC3 would still need an upgrade of its own and possibly a HM2 standard cockpit for logistic commonality. But then again, Puma HC2 is common to nothing else in service, and has its own cost.

  5. mr gabrielle

    plz try to post next article on typhoon especially on it's aesa radar recent development & future plans


  6. Puma was kept because it provides an urban/woodland confined space capability, something Merlin/Chinook are too big for. Wildcat/lynx can do this but are too small to lift a useful load of troops. The upshot is the UK needs a smaller medium SH in the Puma class and with tight budgets upgrading Puma was the best option to maintain capability.

    Good blog btw.

    1. Puma is also far more practical to deploy to distant theatres by C-17 transport, and can be ready in a few hours after unloading. But considering that a replacement for Puma in the 2020s does not even seem to considered, i'm starting to doubt of the actual relevance of the "technical" part in the budget making. Too many decisions just don't make sense.

  7. Yes indeed. One of the issues with modern kit is size, most things are getting bigger, mostly for some very good reasons but it does create problems. Firstly cost, bigger equates to more cost but then secondly there is mobility. Bigger kit means bigger transport. A long time ago a Westland Scout would fit in a Hercules, today we need A400 or C17 to move a wildcat. Merlin really needs a C5, while puma will go in an A400.

    When you consider the choice a few years ago it really came down to lose the puma and it's small space/deployable role or upgrade them. There was no money for a new type and the option of cutting them would have left the RAF with fewer helicopters and a loss of capability.

    As for next decade? Pass. The reality is that the UK will need a small SH. Puma, Bell 212/412, Lynx9 and Gazelle will all go and relying on large airframes like Merlin or Chinook is not possible, there are roles they can't perform.

    1. Forgetting for a moment about budget issues and assuming the endless list of problems with it get fixed in the coming years; do you think a purchase of NH-90 could be a way to replace the SF Lynx 9 of 657 AAC and the Pumas?

    2. Depends what you want. As a puma replacement NH90 is ideal essentially what it was designed as and I suppose in an ideal world the Puma replacement would be that- don't forget the UK was originally in the NH90 club at the start.

      Question is will NH90 be the aircraft for 657? Two issues arise (beyond cost!) First off size, if SF want bigger then NH90 is probably an ideal fit below 7 sqns Chinooks without duplicating the capability. But if SF want something small like a lynx then NH90 might be a bit on the big side, NH90 is a lot of airframe to perform liaison and small team work.

      The second issue is 657 will never be allowed to operate NH90. If the UK purchased NH90 the RAF would get it and service politics would never allow it to be used by AAC - whatever the rights and wrongs of that is!

      My feeling is that it will need to be a compromise airframe that has potential to be easily built in Yeovil which suggests AW139/149. Cheaper, gives you a capability not far removed from Puma but is not oversized as a lynx replacement or even Gazelle. Would fit well as a Bell 212/412 replacement as well.


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