Military, Services

Better Equipped for the Hunt  

By By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief  | September 1, 2013

On July 23rd the British Royal Navy announced that its 824 Squadron had become the first to be equipped with five AgustaWestland AW101 HM Mk2 helicopters delivered through a 25-year contract known as the Merlin Capability Sustainment Program (MCSP). The lead unit to upgrade to Merlin Mk2 is 824 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), and will be followed by 829 NAS, 814 NAS and finally 820 NAS.

The “gray” AW101 Merlins of the fleet air arm are primarily responsible for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) onboard Royal Navy warships and have been in service since June 2000. By November 2002 AgustaWestland had delivered the first six Merlin Mk1s and initial operating capability (IOC) was declared in April 2003.

View of the cockpit during a Royal Navy demo flight of the
upgraded Merlin Mk2.

Integration lead company Lockheed Martin and aircraft manufacturer AgustaWestland staged the ceremony at the home of the Fleet Air Arm, Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Culdrose, in Cornwall, UK. Among those attending were: Royal Navy Commodore Andy Lison, responsible for the Merlin, Lynx and Sea King teams for the UK Ministry of Defence’s organization for defense, equipment and support (DE&S); Cmdr. Ben Franklin, commanding officer of the Merlin Helicopter Force; Bob Kramer, vice president and group general manager for Lockheed Martin UK Integrated Systems; and Ray Edwards, managing director, AgustaWestland.

Franklin outlined just how committed operationally his force is: “Merlin Mk1 is with 814 Squadron in the Gulf and with 829 Squadron on Type 23 frigates in a high readiness presence in the UK and east of Suez. We are just about to deploy aircraft on HMS Illustrious and have generated an 828 Squadron flight in support of a Type 25 destroyer.” He added that while the Merlin fleet is one of the busiest in terms of commitment of all types across the MoD’s range of assets, they had met all operational tasking in 2012.”

The long-term objective of the MCSP is the sustainment and improvement of the type’s ASW capability and the gradual expansion of its multi-role capability. The introduction of open system architecture should allow for the insertion of new technology during the lifetime of the helicopter. In total, 30 Merlin Mk1s will be upgraded to Mk2 standard with the first helicopters ready for deployment next summer. The work is being done at AgustaWestland’s Yeovil facility and should be completed during 2015.

Trafalgar Class Fleet Submarine HMS Turbulent is
pictured with the Merlin from Type 23 frigate HMS
St Albans, during an anti-submarine exercise in the
Gulf of Oman.

The contract, worth £750 million ($1.15 million), includes prime integrator Lockheed Martin, AgustaWestland, Selex Sensors and Airborne Systems, Thales Underwater Systems, CAE, Qinetiq and other specialist partners. It is specifically aimed at upgrading the cockpit avionics and mission system, with time-saving touchscreen displays and a much wider ability to distribute data to other aircraft and ships. The cockpit is now also night vision goggle (NVG) compatible, although the use of NVGs onboard the Navy’s helicopters does not attract the same priority as those flown by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Army Air Corps (AAC) over land, especially when flying nap-of-the-earth. Indeed the RAF has its own Merlin HC3/3A force although these are earmarked for the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) when the current support helicopters, the Sea King “junglies,” are retired from service in 2016.

AgustaWestland’s Roy Edwards highlighted some of the differences in technology now installed into the Merlin Mk2: “10 x 8” cockpit displays, transmission management computers to replace 386 aircraft computers [Intel stopped making that chip in 2007], Avionics Full Duplex Switched Ethernet [AFDX] protocols as used on the new Airbus family, providing open system architecture which will simplify new additions in the future.” He added that more than one million engineering hours have been spent on the project, but that it has wider value overall: “Much of this technology and the systems are common to the AW159 Wildcat and will be reused in the Merlin Mk4 giving a return on investment and a similar look and feel to the user [MoD].”

The Merlin was one of the first helicopters to use composite materials (18 percent of the airframe), which together with the aluminum adds to the frame’s resistance to salt water corrosion.

Merlin Mk2 MCSP Upgrades

• AgustaWestland: Upgraded glass cockpit and aircraft management system.
• Barco: Dual 24-inch widescreen displays in the mission system console.
• BAE Systems AeI: Data Preparation Facility and the Civil Navigation Database Loader (CNDL).
• CAE: Upgraded cockpit dynamic simulator (CDS), upgraded rear crew training (RCT) devices, and an upgraded cockpit procedural training (CPT) device.
• Saab: New solid-state mass storage unit.
• Selex Sensors and Airborne Systems: Radar subsystem, an upgraded version of the Blue Kestrel surveillance radar installed in the Mk1. Enhancements include new SAR/ISAR modes along with more robust track-while-scan system performance.
• Thales Underwater Systems: Acoustic suite comprising a sonics processing suite featuring new detection and tracking algorithms, including a Common Acoustic Processor which supports both active dipping sonar and passive sonobouy processing.

Operational Picture

In line with the reduced size of the Royal Navy over the past few years the Merlin fleet is being reduced from 38 Mk1 Merlins to 30 Mk2s. They will be operated throughout the fleet.
Commodore Andrew Lison said that the new Merlin Mk2 upgrade had ensured that the Royal Navy retained the world’s most advanced anti-submarine and maritime helicopter: “Fifteen miles of looming that has been replaced… [there is] a new state-of-the-art glass cockpit offering the capability for night vision goggle use in poor visibility [and] the heart of the aircraft is an open architecture mission system using radar, sonar buoy and active dipping sonar data together. Advanced touch screen displays and the ability to datalink with ships and other aircraft put the Merlin at the center of the operational picture.”

Barco displays in the mission system console
as part of the upgraded Merlin.

When not operationally deployed, the home base for the Royal Navy Merlin helicopter fleet is RNAS Culdrose, also known within the Navy as HMS Seahawk. There are four Merlin Squadrons based at Culdrose as well as the Merlin Training Facility (MTF) and the depth maintenance workshops. Depth maintenance for all of the Royal Navy Merlins is performed at RNAS Culdrose.

The MTF comprises both aircrew and aircraft maintenance training and includes a full motion Cockpit Dynamic Simulator provided by dynamic simulation specialist CAE, three rear crew trainers (RCT), six part task trainers (PTTs) and a mechanical systems trainer (MST), as well as computer-based training classrooms. The RCTs provide tactical scenario training and can be linked to the CDS to obtain the benefits of improved crew resource management. Both the CDS and two of the RCTs have already been upgraded to the Mk2 standard. Steve Gibson, one of the training team members, said that it was proposed that the CDS would be upgraded to CAE’s Medallion 6000 system in around two years time. He said that conversion course from the Mk1 to Mk2 Merlin takes around four weeks for flight crew and seven weeks for rear crew and that Mk1 training has already stopped.

Replacing the Airborne Surveillance and Control

When the current Sea King Mk7 fleet of 13 helicopters is retired in 2016 the Royal Navy will need a replacement for the specialized Airborne Surveillance and Control System (SKASaC) that they provide. It is a vital task and will be passed on to the Merlin force in the form of the winner of the Crowsnest competition for a surveillance and control system which is currently in its assessment phase. However, the 2016 deadline means that time is now running out with only three years remaining to bring an alternative into service and Crowsnest not expected to come into service until 2020 at the earliest.

Integrator Lockheed Martin has proposed an alternative system called Vigilance which has already been flight tested on the Merlin Mk1, although it can be used on a wide variety of platforms. AgustaWestland and Thales have also proposed an upgraded version of the current system, Cerberus using a Searchwater 2000 radar. However, only 10 of the Mk2s are likely be fitted with the new ASaC after the final decision has been made.

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