On 16th October, a Wildcat helicopter conducted the first operational firing of the Marlet missile. The aircraft, 219 flight from 815 Naval Air Squadron and based on HMS Defender launched the missile, successfully hitting the target while flying in the Bay of Bengal.
This is a significant step in the introduction of the Martlet Lightweight Multi-Role Missile (LMM) into service and adds another important layer of defence to the Carrier Strike Group. Martlet is primarily intended to provide defence against asymmetric threats such as small boat swarms. Initial airborne test firings were made in April 2020 but this is the first time the missile has been fired by an operational aircraft and in a theatre outside the UK. Another 815 NAS Wildcat based on HMS Richmond supported the serial as ‘chase aircraft’, recording the launch. HMS Defender is currently part of the CSG21 deployment and the in early October the group passed through the Malacca Strait and into the Bay of Bengal, ahead of joining the Maritime Partnership Exercise (MPX21) which included the US, Australian and Japanese navies.
Martlet is a laser beam riding missile and is guided onto the target by a laser designator on the Wildcat. As a safety feature, if the guiding laser is turned off or it flies outside the laser information field, the missile will self-destruct after 1.5 seconds. (See our previous in-depth article about Martlet).
Using the ‘weapon wing’, Wildcat can fly with up to 20 Martlet missiles in two panniers of five on each wing. However, due to aerodynamic issues, for now at least, Wildcat is only cleared to carry 10 missiles although this can be combined with a load of two Sea Venom missiles carried on the outer pylons stations. From a tactical perspective, the mixed Marlet/Sea Venom load is unlikely to be called for very often and 4 Sea Venoms would be a more common armament for an anti-shipping strike.
In other Wildcat developments, two HMA2 aircraft have been loaned to the Army Air Corps so they can assess the potential of using the Seaspray radar in the over-land role and initial flight trials are reported to have been successful. The AH1 variant of Wildcat aircraft operated by the Army and 847 NAS were not fitted with the radar as a cost-saving measure. The possibility of adding the updated Seaspray 7500E V2 variant is being considered and is a low-risk option that would considerably increase the aircraft’s battlefield utility.
Most significantly for the RN, a joint project with the Army is underway to fit a Tactical Data Link (TDL) to Wildcat. This basic feature was also omitted as a cost-saving measure but Link 16 will finally allow the sharing of real-time imagery and data with the parent ship and other platforms. On operations over land, the Wildcat will be able to merge the tactical picture generated via the Bowman radio onto a single map display.