After a protracted and complicated evaluation, Thales has been chosen to provide the Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) system for the UK Royal Navy Merlin HM.2 helicopter fleet, in a project named Crowsnest. The ASaC capability will be added to some of the 30-strong Merlin fleet, which is primarily engaged in anti-submarine and anti-ship missions. The Navy is due to retire the seven Sea King Mk7 helicopters that currently perform the ASaC mission in 2018.
The Thales Searchwater radar and Cerberus mission system that is carried by the Sea Kings will be updated and repackaged to fit the Merlins, including new modes and data processing. Crowsnest will be capable of performing overland and maritime surface surveillance, as well as airborne early warning. In the latter role, the system will protect the UK’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers when they enter service starting in 2020. Thales is retaining the Searchwater’s mechanically-scanned antenna design from the Sea Kings, although its radome deploys in a different manner beneath the Merlin for 360-degree coverage.
The evaluation was complicated because Lockheed Martin UK (LM UK) is the prime contractor for the Merlin helicopter fleet and proposed a rival radar and mission system. Nevertheless, LM UK did take part in the evaluation process for the new ASaC capability, together with UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials. LM UK’s solution was an IAI Elta ELM-2052 radar carried in twin pods on either side of the Merlin, and integrated with the LM UK Vigilance mission system. The radar’s active electronically-scanned antenna (AESA) was subdivided into four 120-degree V-shaped arrays to provide overlapping coverage. LM UK and IAI partnered to do flight tests of this configuration on a helicopter and a Boeing 737 in Israel in 2012, before it was test-fitted to a Merlin in 2014.
LM UK has been developing Vigilance as a surveillance system that can be added to various fixed- and rotary-wing platforms since 2010, including C-130s, but has not yet claimed any customers. The company originally partnered with Northrop Grumman as the radar supplier, before switching to IAI-Elta and henceforth emphasizing in presentations that Vigilance was a relatively low-cost surveillance system, free of U.S. export controls.
According to the MoD, LM UK will now conclude the $40 million assessment phase for Crowsnest, supported by Thales and AgustaWestland, which built the Merlin helicopter platforms in the 1990s. An MoD official said the project had been accelerated so that there would be no gap in the ASaC capability when the Sea King Mk 7s are retired. They have been used extensively for overland surveillance of Iraq and Afghanistan, in support of British and allied ground forces, during the past decade.
Thales said that its “winning solution will maximize the re-use of the MoD’s existing investment in equipment, training and expertise by upgrading, updating and adapting a battle-proven capability, ahead of operational timescales.”