LONDON — The Royal Navy could be facing as much as a four-year gap in its airborne early warning capability after the current fleet of Sea King Mk7 helicopters is taken out of service in 2016, said sources familiar with the plan.
It could be 2020 before the Merlin helicopters earmarked to take over the airborne surveillance and control role in a project known as Crowsnest are operational, the sources said.
The move leaves the Royal Navy with a yawning gap in its maritime surveillance capabilities during the second half of this decade following the axing of the Nimrod MRA4 patrol aircraft as part of the cost-cutting strategic defense review of 2010.
The radar-equipped Merlins will have a key role providing organic protection for the Royal Navy’s new F-35-equipped aircraft carrier force, scheduled to be operational around 2020.
Concerns over a capability gap developing between introduction of the airborne early warning radar-equipped Merlins and the demise of the Sea Kings were voiced in a parliamentary defense committee report Sept. 19, looking at the future of U.K. maritime surveillance.
“There is the potential for other capability gaps to occur, such as when the Sea King airborne surveillance and control helicopter is withdrawn in 2016 to be replaced by the Project Crowsnest operating from the Merlin Mk2,” the report said.
A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman declined to comment on the in-service date.
In a statement released with the report, James Arbuthnot, the committee chairman, said the “risk is likely to worsen in the medium term as further maritime surveillance capabilities are withdrawn or not yet filled.”
For some time now, Sea King airborne surveillance and control helicopters have been successfully deployed in Afghanistan supporting NATO ground forces.
Crowsnest has been in limbo for months while the MoD sorted out wider funding shortfalls.
The program could start to move ahead by the end of the year, with the MoD possibly announcing the start of what is expected to be a lengthy project assessment phase.
The MoD spokeswoman said Crowsnest is “approved as part of the core equipment program, with an assessment phase to start in due course.”
She said a contractor for Crowsnest has not been selected.