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Keep the Bags

Oct. 7, 2012 - 04:14PM   |  
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Without an aircraft carrier and facing continuing budget pressures, the British Royal Navy is retiring its airborne Sea King airborne early-warning helicopters in 2016. That could result in a long-term gap if its planned Crowsnest replacement is delayed.

The Sea Kings are lovingly referred to as “bags” for the inflatable rubberized cover that surrounds the large Searchwater radar on the right side of the aircraft that rotates downward after takeoff. The helicopter was the result of a crash program to outfit carriers with an AEW capability after the lack of early warning in 1982 allowed Argentina to sink four Royal Navy ships and a container ship during the Falklands War.

Like so many British systems over the decades, the Sea King is ungainly but works surprisingly well at tracking not only air targets but surface contacts. in Iraq, the Sea Kings were able to track artillery and mortar rounds with staggering accuracy. Their surveillance capabilities remain sought after by British and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

some suggest that, as a stopgap, the Royal Air Force’s Sentinel ground surveillance planes perform the role. Britain’s defense review recommended retiring the five aircraft after troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, but the RAF is fighting to keep this key capability into the future. despite proving its worth in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, sources said the planes were never designed to track ocean targets. And a test over the Mediterranean last year showed its ca-pabilities in anything over Sea State 1 are poor.

If Crowsnest is delayed, then the Navy must keep the Sea Kings in service. The expense will be negligible compared with the cost of losing the capability and scattering experienced crews who will have to be reconstituted in the future.

This isn’t a question of time-expired airframes; rather, it’s money-expired budgets. having stripped out the Nimrod maritime airborne surveillance in 2010, delaying Crowsnest would be a step too far, undermining a weakened Navy’s effort to preserve as much capability as possible in an era of strategic change and uncertainty.

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