Four different types of British naval helicopters take part in a 2007 air show in Yeovil, England. They are the Merlin, far right; Lynx Type Mk 8, second and third in background from right; Lynx Type Mk3, first and second from left; and the Sea King Mk7, in foreground. (UK Ministry of Defence)
LONDON — A planned gap in the British Royal Navy’s air surveillance capability is being reduced by about 18 months after the Defence Ministry agreed to speed up a program to replace Sea King Mark 7 airborne early warning (AEW) helicopters due to go out of service in 2016.
The decision has resulted in a competition to supply the radar and mission systems for a new AEW capability destined to be fitted to AgustaWestland-built Merlin helicopters moving into full swing. A team from Lockheed Martin’s Mission Systems and Training business and Elta Systems is competing against Thales UK.
An MoD spokesman said both parties had been “awarded £6.5 million [US $10.6 million] deals to demonstrate and test their competing solutions.”
A winner is expected to be declared in 2016, the spokesman said.
On the revised schedule, the in-service date is set for 2018, with initial operating capability planned to be declared the following year.
The MoD also confirmed that, separate from the radar and mission systems competition, Lockheed Martin UK last year was awarded a £24 million deal to serve as overall prime contractor, running the work to design, develop and demonstrate the program, called Crowsnest.
According to sources, Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training is believed to be teaming with Israel Aerospace Industries subsidiary Elta to compete against the Thales Cerebrus system, an updated version of the radar used onboard the Sea Kings.
Lockheed declined to comment on its radar partner.
Al Potter, the director for Europe at Lockheed’s Mission Systems and Training business, confirmed his company had selected a partner, but said he was not ready to release the name yet.
The executive said the team had already flown the selected radar on a fixed-wing aircraft as part of the test program. The radar is contained in a pod and is planned to be fitted to existing hard points on the Merlin helicopter.
At one time, a Northrop Grumman radar using active electronically scanned array technology had been the front-runner for Lockheed’s bid.
The competition for 10 roll-on/roll-off systems finds Lockheed and Elta pitched against the incumbent supplier, Thales UK.
The British arm of Thales supplies the Searchwater 2000 radar for a current Sea King surveillance capability which, despite its maritime origins, has seen the chopper widely used by allied forces in landlocked Afghanistan and, before that, Iraq.
Matt Avison, the Crowsnest director at Thales UK, said the Cerebrus offering would be based on an upgraded version of the radar used on the Sea King.
“The acceleration decision lends itself to our solution. One of our strengths is based on short-time lines to introduce,” Avison said.
The Royal Navy has been facing a four-year capability gap between the Sea King airborne surveillance and control helicopters (SKASaCS) being pensioned off and the planned 2020 in-service date of its Merlin-based replacement.
Under the old timeframe, full operational capability would not have been until 2022 — two years after the new Royal Navy aircraft carrier that the Crowsnest machines were meant to protect enters service.
Britain is building two 65,000-ton carriers, although due to budget pressures, it may only operate one of the ships. A small order for the first tranche of production F-35B jump-jets, to be operated jointly by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, is expected imminently.
Flying trials off the deck of the carrier Queen Elizabeth are scheduled for 2018, with the warship gaining full operating capability in 2020.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the “introduction of Crowsnest 18 months early will ensure HMS Queen Elizabeth has the full range of capabilities when it enters service.”
The MoD admitted in mid-2013 it was looking again at the timing of the Crowsnest program due to concerns over capability, and the need to dovetail better with Queen Elizabeth’s operational timelines.
In a letter to the Parliamentary Defence Committee, the then-Defence Minister Andrew Robathan confirmed that even though other assets provided a modest amount of surveillance capability, the gap could not be entirely closed. ■