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be operational by April 2016, when the last Sea King HC4 (no more than 11 remain in service, used by 845 NAS) will be withdrawn from service.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|
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|
|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.