The first Leonardo Merlin HM.2 helicopter fitted with the Crowsnest Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) system has completed its first flight. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin UK confirmed that the designated trials aircraft took off from Leonardo Helicopters’ Yeovil facility fitted with Crowsnest on March 28 to begin aero-mechanical flight trials.
“This milestone is key to assessing the flight envelope and handling qualities of the aircraft with the external-role equipment fitted, and marks the start of a series of flight trials which will take place throughout 2019,” said Ross Powlesland, managing director of military solutions for Lockheed Martin UK.
The Crowsnest program will see the Royal Navy regain an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) capability for its surface fleet, with a primary focus on the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. The new system is expected to achieve initial operational capability in 2020 and will form a key part of the navy’s future Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) capability. In the past, this AEW&C capability was provided by the Sea King ASaC.7 (SKASaC) fleet until the type’s retirement in 2018.
“This first flight is part of the development of the Crowsnest capability, fitted to the Merlin helicopter, which will provide vital intelligence, surveillance, and tracking and significantly enhance the airborne command and control capability of the Royal Navy,” said a service spokesperson.
The Merlin HM.2 Crowsnest will use improved missions systems and hardware originally developed for the SKASaC fleet, including the distinctive “bag” radome that houses the Thales Searchwater radar and swivels down below the aircraft during flight from the port-side weapon station. The mechanically scanned radar will offer long-range air, maritime, and land detection and tracking capability, and also feature fully integrated electronic support measures. The radar and associated Cerberus mission system, also supplied by Thales, have evolved for the Merlin HM.2 to include new radar modes, as well as human-machine interface enhancements such as touchscreen technology.
A total of 10 Crowsnest systems will be purchased as part of a £269 million ($351.7 million) contract awarded to Lockheed Martin UK in 2017. All 30 of the Royal Navy’s Merlin HM.2s—previously upgraded by Lockheed Martin UK as part of the Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme—will be modified by Leonardo Helicopters in Yeovil to ensure that the Crowsnest role-fit kits can be integrated on any helicopter if required.