The UK Ministry of Defence is spending more than $1.35 billion to upgrade the Merlin Mk 1 large maritime helicopter which has been operational for less than five years. The upgrade is necessary because the Merlin has been so long in development that its computer systems have become obsolete. It also signifies a determination to maintain helicopter systems engineering skills in the UK.
Lockheed Martin UK’s facility at Havant in southern England (formerly known as IBM Federal Systems UK) was the original systems integrator and prime contractor for the Mk 1. Work began in 1991 and the first Merlin with a mission system flew in 1997. Deliveries began in late 1998 but the first operational squadron did not form until October 2001.
The U.S.-owned company has the same status as prime contractor in the new Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme (MCSP) contract. Helicopter maker AgustaWestland is the major subcontractor to Lockheed Martin UK, but AEI, BAE Systems, Barco, CAE, QinetiQ, Smiths, Selex and Thales are also partners. Thirty helicopters will be upgraded for service beginning in 2013, and eight more are on option (the Royal Navy bought 44 Mk1s).
According to the MoD, the Merlin has “components and design features that are becoming difficult to support.” According to Lockheed Martin UK, the new contract “will deliver cost savings of over £500 million [$925 million] through the avoidance of obsolescence, and savings in future support costs in excess of £75 million [$139 million].”
The MCSP includes an open-systems architecture, upgraded radar, new mission computer and new displays. But the contract does not provide an air-surface missile or an electro-optical sensor for the Merlin Mk 1. The Royal Navy has not yet confirmed whether it should be fitted with an upgraded datalink (Link 22 replacing Link 11). The electronic warfare system is not being upgraded.
However, the Royal Navy justifies the upgrade in operational terms. It believes the Merlin is already the world’s best helicopter for hunting and attacking submarines in deep waters. Today, though, the surveillance of surface vessels in coastal waters is just as important. In that role, the two mission systems operators must handle many more “contacts.”
On the upgraded Merlin, each will have 24-inch high-resolution liquid-crystal main displays, with split-screen modes and showing many more tracks. The tracks can be filtered using various criteria, so the operator does not suffer from data overload. The operator consoles also feature two 12-inch touch-screen display units, in which the menu hierarchy has been flattened from eight levels to two. The consoles can be quickly removed to adjust the Merlin for transport or search-and-rescue roles.
The Selex Seaspray radar will gain a new processor, a synthetic-aperture (SAR) mode for ground-mapping and an inverse SAR mode for target identification. The acoustics processor will be improved to give better performance against slow targets and in shallow waters.
In the cockpit, there will be five 10- by 8-inch displays that are compatible with night-vision goggles; new navigation and communications suites; and new flight control computers adapted from the Eurofighter that provide carefree handling. For the first time, on a fly-by-wire helicopter, electromechanical actuators will replace the hydraulic actuators. AgustaWestland’s helicopter electro-actuation technology (HEAT) also helps extend the flight envelope and has other benefits, such as reduced pilot workload and operating costs.
When IBM won the original Merlin Mk1 contract, it had to import most of the engineers from its core helicopter systems integration business in the U.S. Now, though, 90 percent of the employees are British, and 500 of them will retain their jobs, thanks to the CSP work. This contract will sustain another 900 jobs elsewhere, according to Lockheed Martin UK.
The company was recently commissioned to study whether the Merlin could be the UK’s future maritime airborne surveillance and control platform. This will serve on the Future Aircraft Carriers alongside the Royal Navy’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.