LONDON — Britain’s Royal Navy may try to plug a two-year gap in its ability to lift Royal Marines from naval vessels to the shore by taking some of the Royal Air Force helicopters earmarked to join the Commando Helicopter Force later in the decade earlier than expected.
The helicopters would receive only essential modifications rather than the full marinization update scheduled for the Merlins due to be modified in the main program.
The gap would appear beginning in 2016, when Royal Marine Sea King machines are due to be pensioned off. The plan has been to replace the Sea King fleet with heavily modified Merlins previously operated by the RAF in a battlefield utility role.
But the Merlin Mk3/3a’s likely will not be fully adapted for maritime duties by contractor AgustaWestland until 2018, leaving the British with a two-year capability gap at a time when the Commando’s ability to deploy from the sea is becoming increasingly important.
The answer, it seems, is to fit about eight Mk3s with a folding main rotor so the machine can be deployed effectively on warships, partially taking over the Sea King role as it heads for museums and breakers yards after more than 40 years of service. Fitting the folding rotor head would allow the Merlin to be moved into the hangars of vessels such as the helicopter carrier Ocean.
The effort to retain helicopter lift capability comes in the wake of a 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review that confirmed a requirement for up to an 1,800-strong very-high readiness Commando force able to land and sustain itself.
Returning to Naval Roots
The recent Exercise Cougar in the Mediterranean involving a Royal Navy task force led by the helicopter carrier Illustrious, and exercises later this year east of Suez and elsewhere, demonstrate British interest in getting back into littoral warfare after years of focusing on land operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere where the Commandos and their Sea Kings have been heavily engaged.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed a partially modified Merlin Mk3 could be pressed into service to temporarily cover Commando lift requirements.
“In 2016, when the Sea King Mk4 goes out of service, we plan to have an interim airframe capability based on Merlin. The exact details have yet to be determined,” he said.
Lee Willett , the head of maritime programs at the Royal United Services Institute, said the Marines’ ability to project force from the sea would have increasing military and political significance.
“Given the view that engagement on land will become more difficult, the need for forces able to go ashore from naval platforms to support a range of policy interests will be a growing political requirement,” he said.
“There are no better prepared elements of the U.K. armed forces than the Marines to do this. Their challenge in terms of perception is the extent to which their capabilities can be used in circumstances other than high-end war fighting,” said Willett.
The Royal Navy spent considerable effort recapitalizing its amphibious forces prior to the strategic defense and security review in 2010, and the decision to reduce the Marines’ capabilities has already been called into question, he said.
The potential capability gap came to light in the National Audit Office review of major defense projects released Jan. 10.
The Royal Navy already operates Merlins in the anti-submarine role with folding rotor blades and a folding tail.
One analyst said it might be possible to use folding rotor blades from the Merlin Mk1s that are not part of a 650 million pound ($1.04 billion) capability sustainment program being undertaken by Lockheed Martin UK to upgrade 30 of the machines to the Mk2 standard.
“A number of the Merlin Mk1s used by the Royal Navy for anti-submarine duties are not part of the midlife upgrade program, so it’s possible the folding rotor heads fitted to these naval platforms could be cannibalized to provide a quick, cost-effective capability on a batch of Mk3s,” he said.
Safety and other improvements for maritime use also are likely to be included as part of the interim fit.
The MoD spokesman said aircrew and engineering training for the Commando version of the Merlin has been underway since last year.
“There are currently 100 qualified aircrew and maintenance personnel who have been integrated within the RAF Support Helicopter Force,” he said.
The spokesman said it was too early to talk about the timing, cost and numbers of Merlin Mk3/3a’s likely to be fully converted to become the prime mover of Royal Marines and their equipment across the littoral. AgustaWestland has been conducting assessment phase work on the project for several months. The completion of that work by May will establish the extent of the maritime adaption program, along with timing and numbers.
Sources here said between 24 and 27 Merlins could be modified with a likely rapid buildup of capability once the contract is signed, possibly late this year. Cost could be in the region of 300 million pounds, although that’s dependent on what is included in the package.
The program is a key element in AgustaWestland’s plan to retain military skills and capabilities in the U.K. while it refocuses the business to include commercial helicopter work.
A fully modified maritime Merlin for the Commando role is expected to feature a folding tail, folding main rotor and other upgrades needed for the machine to routinely operate at sea.
With obsolescence issues threatening the Mk 3/3a’s continued operation much beyond 2020 without an upgrade, the MoD is also investigating a life sustainment program for the machine, said a second source.
The MoD spokesman said the Mk3/3a would “exploit work done during the [Lockheed Martin] Capability Sustainment Program where appropriate.”
Whatever the outcome of the assessment phase and subsequent manufacturing decision for the fully adapted Merlin, the interim solution would provide only about a third of the required total lift. The recent deployment of a Maritime Task Group on Exercise Cougar suggested lift capabilities might be supplemented by Boeing Chinooks if necessary.
Aside from Sea Kings, Illustrious had two RAF Chinooks embarked during exercises involving French, Albanian and other forces. The other air assets on the carrier included Apache attack and Lynx utility helicopters.
The littoral capabilities of the British are set for a boost in 2015 with the introduction of the maritime attack version of the Lynx, known as the Wildcat.
The British Army Apaches were deployed operationally at sea for the first time during the Libyan campaign, so the attack helicopter is set to become a regular addition to the firepower of the 3 Commando Brigade-led Lead Commando Group very-high readiness force and others.