Contenders Vie For British AEW Helicopter System

 - September 13, 2013, 1:50 PM
The Thales solution for the British Crows Nest AEW requirement includes a radar housing that slides down a rack fitted to the mid-fuselage of a Merlin helicopter, to provide 36-degree coverage. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

British plans for a new AEW helicopter system were in focus at the Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI) show in London this week. Lockheed Martin UK (LMUK) and Thales will compete for the requirement named Crows Nest, to provide a replacement for Royal Navy’s current Sea King Mk7 airborne surveillance and control (ASaC) helicopters, and be deployable on the UK’s two forthcoming aircraft carriers.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has specified that the Crows Nest system of radar and consoles be capable of rapid mounting on, and removal from, the Navy’s 30-strong fleet of Merlin HM.2 helicopters. Their main roles are anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare, and they are currently being upgraded by LMUK. The MoD has asked LMUK to manage the Crows Nest evaluation, even though the company is also a contender, having begun development of the Vigilance multi-mission radar system for the Merlin and other platforms two years ago, using Northrop Grumman AESA technology. The evaluation process has been further complicated by an MoD requirement that both LMUK and Thales evaluate alternative radars suggested by IAI Elta and Selex ES. Up to eight systems are required.

Thales UK provides the ASaC system on the soon-to-be-retired Sea Kings. Matt Avison, account director ISR, told AIN that the company would build on this “excellent system, the only radar in the world that does air, land and sea surveillance,” he claimed. Thales had completed its MoD-mandated evaluation of alternative radars, and rejected them in favor of updating the existing system with new processors. The mechanically scanned antenna would be retained because of its superior target detection in clutter over long ranges. It would be deployed beneath the helicopter by means of a rack fitted to the mid-fuselage. The mission system–named Cerebrus by Thales–would also be updated.

An LMUK spokesman told AIN that it is “in the final stages of selecting a radar for the Crows Nest requirement, and for the Vigilance system.” It seems that Northrop Grumman may no longer be its preferred supplier. LMUK has already flown a Merlin helicopter with the housings for the Vigilance radar system, which are mounted on both sides of the mid-fuselage. The company-funded flight tests proved the fit, and the environmental conditions–no radar was carried.

The timescale for the Crows Nest requirement is unclear, amidst concern that funding constraints would prevent it from entering service until 2022, two years after the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier. Last May, the MoD’s senior civil servant told a parliamentary committee that the “main gate” decision to select a winner and fund the program would be taken in 2014. The MoD later requested a correction for the written record, to 2017.

At DSEI, Rear Admiral Russ Harding, assistant chief of the naval staff for aviation and carriers, told AIN that he is “trying to change that date back to 2014.” Meanwhile, the MoD’s Crows Nest procurement team has told LMUK and Thales to expect a downselect in early 2015 so that the system can be in service beginning in 2018.

LMUK and Thales UK each believe that their solutions are viable candidates for export and adaptable to a range of platforms from helicopters to airlifters to lighter-than-air vehicles.