Just in time for the operational Carrier Strike deployment in May, the first Merlin Mk2 aircraft equipped with a Crowsnest kit has gone into service with the RN.
The Crowsnest project has not gone smoothly and there was some doubt as to whether any aircraft would be ready by May. The first radar flight trial was made in February 2020 and under growing pressure, the contractors, Lockheed Martin, Leonardo and Thales, allocated extra resources to the project. The three Crowsnest Merlins that will accompany the CSG21 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.
Each helicopter has a crew of three, two observers who are the mission and tactical specialists and one pilot. When at altitude, they extend the radar horizon to give early warning of air or surface threats. The operators are nicknamed ‘baggers’ and provide airborne surveillance and control (ASaC) for other aircraft in the carrier’s strike group, including the F-35s.
The distinctive-looking ‘bag’ containing the radar is attached by an arm to the fuselage and after take-off, is lowered to the vertical position. When not in use the radome is is lifted 90º to the horizontal position and the bag deflated.
Training by aircrews to use the new system has been underway since the autumn and the first aircraft to have the kit installed began operational training from RNAS Culdrose this month. Synthetic training has already doubtless played an important part in preparation but there is limited time available to iron out teething problems and work up the aircrews. The carrier strike group will participate in Exercise Strike Warrior in early May before the deployment and this will provide an important opportunity for both aircrew and controllers on the ships to rehearse together.
All 30 of the RN’s Merlin Mk2s will ultimately be modified to accept one of the 10 kits being procured and it is intended that aircraft can be re-rolled between ASW and ASaC as needed. 849 Naval Air Squadron which previously operated the ASaC Sea King was supposed to transition to Crowsnest but in April 2020, was disbanded and the Crowsnest capability has been absorbed into 820 Squadron.