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LONDON — A program to replace the Royal Navy’s airborne early warning capability has moved a step forward with approval for assessment phase work on the Merlin Mk2 helicopter-based system being awarded to Lockheed Martin UK.
At the same time, though, the Ministry of Defence has confirmed the in-service date of the new system, dubbed Crowsnest, as 2020 — four years after the existing Sea King Mk7 capability is due to be stood down.
The MoD said in a statement last week that it had awarded Lockheed Martin an initial £3 million (US $3.5 million) scoping contract ahead of the expected autumn start of what is known as Assessment Phase 3.
Phases 1 and 2 were conducted under the auspices of the earlier Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control program, which concluded in early 2010 before being overtaken by the requirements of the Conservative-led Governments strategic defense and security review.
“Crowsnest is funded as part of the core [equipment] program, and approval has been obtained for AP3 to take the project to the main gate [development and manufacture] investment decision,” said the MoD April 19.
The MoD said it was premature to discuss detailed costs, timelines and subcontractors ahead of the AP3 work but it did confirm a Defense News story from September 2012 that there would be a four-year gap between the retirement of the Sea Kings and the introduction of the Merlin-based replacement.
“The Crowsnest helicopters are planned to enter service in 2020 with a deployable capability following shortly afterward. In the interim, following the retirement of the Sea King Airborne Surveillance and Control aircraft in 2016, a level of capability will be provided through the use of embarked maritime helicopters, shore-based assets or shipborne sensors,” said the statement.
Lack of equipment funds until the second half of the decade is largely to blame for the introduction of the capability gap.
The decision to delay introduction of Crowsnest places further strain on British maritime surveillance capabilities following the scrapping of the Royal Air Force’s Nimrod MRA4 patrol aircraft force in 2010 as part of an effort to cut defense spending.
The introduction of the Crowsnest capability will coincide with the entry into service of the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier with it’s F-35 jets .
The UK arm of Lockheed Martin has been appointed prime contractor on the program to replace the Sea King AEW capability, and along with the MoD will conduct a competition to supply the Crowsnest mission system.
That competition is likely to boil down to a two-horse race between the incumbent Searchwater 2000 radar supplier Thales UK and Lockheed Martin itself with the Vigilance system developed with Northrop Grumman.
Lockheed Martin is the Merlin prime contractor, although the helicopter itself was designed and built by AgustaWestland, and has more recently been responsible for a major capability sustainment program on the machine.