As part of Britain’s fiscal rebalancing, The Royal Navy is set to inherent the RAF’s Merlin HC3/3A medium-heavy battlefield helicopter fleet, while simultaneously upgrading its existing set of Merlin HM Mk1s. The entire effort approaches $3 billion for a final total of 55 refurbished helicopters, and these refurbishments will be carried out as part of the AW101 fleet’s long-term maintenance plan.
The navy’s existing fleet is being progressively upgraded and returned to service, adding a range of technological improvements to the helicopter’s avionics, control systems, sensors, and radar. The Royal Navy received 44 EH101 Merlin HM1s between 1998-2002 for training, surface attack and anti-submarine warfare duties, and has since lost 2 in accidents. The remaining 42 helicopters are now expected to remain in service until 2029, though only 30-38 will be upgraded. Another 28 EH101 Merlin HC3/ HC3A medium support helicopters currently serve with the UK Royal Air Force, and they will join the Navy to succeed the Sea King Mk.4 Commandos as the Royal Marines’ battlefield helicopters.
The Navy’s Merlins: Support and Upgrades
Team Lockheed’s Role: Merlin Mk.2
(click to view video)
EH101 Merlin HM Mk1 helicopters will undergo GBP 1.15 billion ($2.04 billion at milestone conversion) in upgrades from original manufacturer AgustaWestland and Lockheed Martin UK. Originally built in the 1990s as an anti-submarine and search-and-rescue aircraft, the Merlin has taken on an increasingly wide range of roles. This extensive upgrade program is designed to give the Royal Navy upgrades in current capabilities, far greater operational flexibility, and reduced lifetime maintenance costs.
The Merlin Capability Sustainment Plus (MCSP) program will target 30 helicopters, with an option for a further 8. They will be progressively upgraded to Mk.2 status from 2010 at AgustaWestland’s Yeovil, UK facility, with Full Rate Production slated to begin in 2012. The new AW101 Merlin Mk2 helicopters began delivery in July 2013, with Full Operational Capability scheduled for 2014.
Lockheed Martin UK is the lead integrator for MSCP, and it received a GBP 750 million contract to help implement an open systems electronics architecture in the helicopters; improve the mission systems processing capabilities; add new capabilities for the Merlin’s Blue Kestrel Radar and Sonar system; broaden datalinks; and upgrade the aircrew console and avionics, including large flat panel touch screens. On a tactical level, these improvements will enable 40 times the number of targets to be tracked compared to the Merlin Mk.1, improve submarine detection in shallow water, and enhance night operations.
While improved capabilities will flow from these upgrades, the primary goal is to resolve electronics obsolescence issues in the current Mk1 variant, and reduce through life support and operating costs. The UK already has an IMOS through-life support contract with AgustaWestland, but a different structure for the support contract will not, by itself, solve problems with the underlying technology.
Overall, this Mk.2 Merlin technology upgrade is expected to reduce pilot workload, cost of ownership, maintenance and weight while giving improved survivability, safety, aircraft handling and agility.
Lockheed’s team includes AEI, BAE, CAE, Selex, Smiths, Thales, and QinetiQ. The firm estimates that this order creates or secures around 1,400 jobs across the UK’s defense industry.
AgustaWestland: The Merlin Mk.4 Commando
The RAFs 28 Merlin HC3 battlefield helicopters are also due for conversion, in order to replace existing Sea King Commando Mk.4 helicopters used by the Royal Marines. Around 25 AW101s are likely to be updated to the Merlin Mk.4 configuration, which will include the same cockpit modernizations and obsolescence/ minor redesigns for the Mk.2, plus standard naval changes like a folding rotor head, strengthened landing gear, deck lashing points, and a fast roping point for the Royal Marines.
The contract wasn’t issued until early 2014, and the Sea Kings are all expected to retire in 2016. The 1st fully-converted Mk.4s won’t even be available for trials until Sept 2017, and IOC won’t take place until 2018.
To bridge that gap, an initial 7 Army Merlins will receive only the folding rotor head that’s required for shipboard use. These Merlin Mk.3i will serve as an interim bridge before the arrival of the full Mk.4 conversions.
AgustaWestland: The HEAT Is On
An independent but closely related GBP 400 million contract was issued to AgustaWestland, who will design, produce and integrate the new avionics suite. The most visible feature will be the new cockpit primary flight displays, incorporating touch screen technology to deliver increased crew efficiency. An updated communication and navigation system will be a less visible but equally important set of changes.
The changes are an opportunity to incorporate more of an Open Systems Architecture (OSA) into the helicopter, using standard electronics components to make adaption faster and easier, instead of requiring expensive and time-consuming efforts to design proprietary circuits.
Mechanically, the MCSP program will also see AgustaWestland introduce its Helicopter Electro Actuation Technology (HEAT) onto the EH101 Merlin HM Mk1. HEAT introduces a cutting edge 3rd generation fly by wire system that uses electrical actuators to provide the control inputs to the helicopter’s rotor systems, instead of using hydraulic units. Unlike other fly-by-wire systems developed for helicopters, the AgustaWestland HEAT system uses electro-actuation for both the main and tail rotors. The brushless electric motor actuators incorporate quadruplex 4-lane architecture with fail technology, allowing the system to function safely even after failure of 2 of the systems. The electrical actuators are maintenance-free and, unlike mechanical systems, do not require the same rigging checks to be made post maintenance.
In naval operations, these systems will allow flights in poorer weather than was previously possible, while the improved handling gives the helicopter more agility and better handling in nap-of-the-earth flights.
The HEAT system’s components underwent extensive testing in 2005 that covered system performance, durability, vibration, environmental, high-intensity radiated fields and lightning strike protection. Results were positive.
Britain’s Bottom Line(s)
Britain’s government actually has 2 bottom lines here. One is cost. Another is industrial.
The UK MoD expects AgustaWestland and Lockheed Martin’s upgrades to deliver cost reductions of around GBP 575 million by removing obsolete, hard to buy parts, and lower support costs. The project will “enable the cost-effective management of obsolescence on an aircraft which has components and design features that are becoming difficult to support…”
These deals also reflect the objectives of the UK’s Defence Industrial Strategy white paper, which seeks to safeguard national capabilities across strategically important industry sectors – including rotorcraft manufacturing and support.
Merlin IOS and associated programs are part of that drive. AgustaWestland’s managing director of military programmes, Alan Johnston, has noted that:
“The EH101 is the first helicopter in the world to utilise this advanced technology [HEAT] which will bring significant operational and cost benefits to customers. We are pleased that, by adopting the partnering principles being developed between AgustaWestland and the UK MoD, we will be able to introduce this important technology into the EH101 Merlin HM Mk1 fleet”
As Mr. Johnson alluded, The HEAT programme is being funded through an innovative contracting strategy which builds on the partnered principles outlined in the UK’s recent Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS) Draft. AgustaWestland will offset the HEAT system production costs against future cost of ownership savings that in future Merlin support contracts.
Just as politics has 2 bottom lines, so does the military. The difference is that instead of overall costs and industrial considerations, the military confronts the twin lines of overall costs and available capability.
Unfortunately, the Merlin has been problematic for the military’s 2nd bottom line. British Merlins have displayed low readiness rates, and this has been consistent over a number of years.
New technologies may help there. On the other hand, the 2006 announcements offered no indication of whether the planned modifications would address the structural issues that have already led to the loss of one British Merlin, or the issues that led Canada to ground its CH-149 Cormorant search and rescue fleet for several months. As DID’s coverage of the USA’s CSAR-X competition noted:
“Canada has grounded its EH101/CH-149 Cormorant search-and-rescue fleet due to persistent cracks in the tail rotor hub (cracks believed to have caused the crash of a British EH101 Merlin as well), and reassigned smaller “twin Huey” Bell 412/ CH-146 Griffon helicopters to that role. The Canadians are also experiencing EH101 maintenance requirements and costs about 200% higher than originally forecast.”
Contracts & Key Events
Although the AW101 is an AgustaWestland product, Lockheed Martin UK was awarded the original Merlin Mk1 contract for the 44 Navy ASW/ASuW helicopters in 1991, with AgustaWestland acting as sub-prime. That structure has remained consistent for the Merlins, and Lockheed Martin UK is also one of AgustaWestland’s strategic partners providing support and training services under the IMOS through-life maintenance program. In practice, MCSP and IMOS are linked, because through-life maintenance milestones are the Navy’s preferred time to install capability upgrades.
August 20/18: Deployed The UK Royal Marines are currently embarking their new Commando Merlin HC4 helicopters on HMS Queen Elizabeth as part of the carrier’s four-month ‘Westlant 18’ deployment. In the upcoming months the helicopters will be provide a SAR capability in support of F-35B trials. The UK is currently in the process of upgrading a total of 55 helicopters at cost of $3 billion. Of which, 25 AW101s are refurbished to the Merlin HC4 configuration, which includes cockpit modernizations and minor redesigns, plus standard naval changes like a folding rotor head, strengthened landing gear, deck lashing points, and a fast roping point for the Royal Marines.
May 28/18: Royal Navy receives HC4 The UK has taken delivery of the first of an eventual 25 AW101 Merlin HC4 helicopters. The delivery is part of the Royal Navy’s effort to modernize its fleet of transport helicopters. The entire effort approaches $3 billion for a final total of 55 refurbished helicopters, and these refurbishments will be carried out as part of the AW101 fleet’s long-term maintenance plan. After being upgraded and marinized under a $517 million contract, the Merlin HC4 heavy-lift transport helicopter will be operated by the RN’s Commando Helicopter Force. The Merlin HC4s replace the fleet of existing Sea King Commando Mk.4 helicopters, their updated configuration includes the same cockpit modernizations and redesigns as for the Mk.2, plus standard naval changes like a folding rotor head, strengthened landing gear, deck lashing points, and a fast roping point for the Royal Marines. The next milestone for the Merlin HC4 will be embarkation aboard the RN’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.
October 20/15: The Royal Navy has received the first of seven AgustaWestland HC3 Merlin helicopters, forming the first tranche of 25 helicopters as part of the Merlin Capability Sustainment Program. With the seven helicopters expected to reach initial operating capability next spring, they will replace Sea King HC4s from March.
September 16/15: The Royal Navy’s fleet of Mk2 Merlin anti-submarine helicopters has achieved Full Operating Capability (FOC), with 24 of 30 helicopters now delivered. A part of the $1.2 billion Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme, the upgrading of the 30 helicopters follows a GBP750 million contract with prime contractor Lockheed Martin, with the first five helicopters delivered back in July 2013 after work began in 2010.
Oct 1/14: All Navy. RAF Benson in Oxfordshire hosts the official ceremony that transfers the British Army’s 2 Support Helicopter Force squadrons to the Naval Commando Helicopter Force.
RAF 78 Squadron is disbanded at the ceremony, and 846 Naval Air Squadron stands up. It will remain at RAF Benson until Spring 2015, when the helicopters will finish their transfer to Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset. RAF 28 (Army Cooperation) Squadron will remain in its current role for a little while, in order to ensure that enough helicopters are in place while the Army’s CH-47 Chinooks and AS332 Pumas are upgraded, RAF 28 squadron will formally disband later in 2015, and stand up as 845 Naval Air Squadron before it also moves to Yeovilton. Sources: RAF, “Royal Air Force Hand Over Merlin To Royal Navy”.
Full handover to Navy
July 14/14: Mk2. UK Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology Philip Dunne announces that the Merlin Mk.2 has already entered service with the Royal Navy, 4 months ahead of the original schedule. Sources: UK MoD, “Navy’s sub-hunting helicopters enter service early”.
Jan 28/14: Mk4/4i. The Navy’s long-expected “Mk.4” upgrade (q.v. Jan 18/11) to the Army’s transferred Merlin HC3 helicopters is signed as the GBP 330 million (about $545 million) Merlin Life Sustainment Programme, which is a lot less expensive that the GBP 454 million originally reported by Aviation Week. MLSP will modify the helicopters, but they will remain within the AW101 fleet’s IMOS support framework.
The Navy will take command of the RAF’s Merlin HC3 fleet late in 2014, and both RAF squadrons will formally disband in mid-2015. The Mk4 Phase 1 program to add folding rotors and make basic changes to 7 interim (Mk.4i) helicopters will start immediately, for delivery during 2015-2016. The Sea Kings will retire in 2016, but the full Mk4 Phase 2 helicopters won’t really be ready until 2018. Sources: UK MoD, “Helicopter investment secures 1,000 UK jobs” | AgustaWestland, “AgustaWestland Awarded UK MoD Merlin Life Sustainment Programme and Apache Integrated Operational Support Contracts Valued at £760 Million” | Aviation Week, “U.K. To Spend £454M On Merlin Modernization Program”.
Mk.4/4i conversion contract
July 24/13: Mk2 Handover. The first 5 of 30 planned Merlin Mk.2 helicopters are handed over to the Royal Navy’s 824 Naval Air Squadron based at RNAS Culdrose, in Southwest England. Deployment is expected in summer 2014, and all deliveries are expected to finish in 2015. Royal Navy | AgustaWestland.
April 11/11: Thales announces a renewed contract with Lockheed Martin UK for the next phase of IMOS, from 2011-2016. The undisclosed contract continues the availability-based support package for the Merlin Mk1 and Mk2’s acoustic sub-system: the popular, multi-platform Folding Light Acoustic System for Helicopters (FLASH) Active Dipping Sonar, and the parallel sonics sub-system for sonobuoy processing.
Thales will support the fleet by providing service management, supply support, technical support and equipment performance analysis. The will also replace the sonobuoy-related sonics sub-system with a phased introduction of a new Thales acoustic sub-system, including a new common acoustic processor incorporating the latest processing technology. That work will be done under the Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme.
Merlin IMOS, Phase 2
Jan 18/11: Aviation Week reports that in parallel with the Navy’s Merlin Mk.2 program, the UK MoD is planning for upgrades to the RAF’s 28 HC3 and HC3A variants in 4-6 years. Those “Mk.3” plans seem to involve moving them into the Navy, including the addition of the naval version’s folding rotors and tail, tie-downs, and the Mk.2’s cockpit avionics upgrade. The RAF is still fighting to retain the machines, operating them from land or off of ships as needed.
The article adds that full-rate Mk.2 upgrades are slated to start in 2011, reaching up to 10 rotorcraft at one time, with a 9 month modification cycle for each machine. While full-rate production would begin in early 2012, therefore, the 1st production delivery would come near year end.
Although the main focus is life extension, capability upgrades also are being introduced, including new radar modes (such as inverse aperture radar) and improved acoustic processing.
Oct 25/10: Lockheed Martin UK – Integrated Systems and AgustaWestland announce that MCSP01, the first upgraded Royal Navy Merlin Mk2 helicopter, has performed a successful maiden flight at the AgustaWestland facility in Yeovil, UK. It marks the start of an intensive MCSP flight-test program.
Four trials aircraft will be dedicated to test and evaluation of the new aircraft, avionics and mission systems at AgustaWestland’s Yeovil site through to late 2011. The helicopters will then transfer to QinetiQ at Boscombe Down to perform further mission system performance evaluation, and Release to Service trials. Aircraft conversion will be undertaken at AgustaWestland’s Yeovil facility, with full rate production in early 2012. The Merlin Mk2 is scheduled to enter service in 2013, and achieve Full Operational Capability in 2014. Lockheed Martin UK.
Mk.2 first flight
March 6/06: British Merlin fleet’s IMOS through-life support contract announced. See “AgustaWestland Lands GBP 450M Through-Life Support Contract for UK EH101s” for more.
Merlin IMOS support contract
Jan 12/06: The UK MoD announces the Merlin Capability Sustainment Plus (MCSP) program, with Lockheed Martin as the lead firm. It involves GBP 1.15 billion in upgrades from original manufacturer AgustaWestland and Lockheed Martin UK. The program will target 30 helicopters, with an option for a further 8. They will be progressively upgraded to Mk.2 status from 2010 at AgustaWestland’s Yeovil, UK facility, with Full Rate Production slated to begin in 2012. UK MoD | Defense-Aerospace.com (Jan 13/06) – Lockheed UK & AgustaWestland corporate releases
MSCP upgrade contract
Additional Readings & Sources
Note that the helicopters’ original designation was “EH101”. This was shifted to “AW101” in 2007, but the UK has always used designations of “Merlin xxxx”. Future naval designations will be Merlin Mk2 for the naval version, and Merlin Mk4/4A for the Royal Marine Commando version.
* DID – AgustaWestland’s Through-Life Support for UK Merlin Helis. IMOS.
* AgustaWestland – AW101.
* Royal Air Force – Merlin HC3. The HC3As are 6 former Danish helicopters; Britain did a deal with Denmark to buy the 6, in exchange for 6 later AW101 production slots. In exchange for not having those AW101s for a few years, Denmark gets newer helicopters to replace them, plus money.
* Army Technology – AW101 (EH101) Transport Helicopter, Italy / UK.
* Royal Navy – Merlin ASW.
* Lockheed Martin UK – Merlin HM MK1 (Merlin).
* Naval Technology – Merlin ASW / Transport Helicopter, United Kingdom.
* Royal Navy – Sea King Mk4.
News & Views
* Defense News (Nov 20/13) – AgustaWestland Poised to Win Helo Conversion, Sustainment Work.
* Royal Navy (Sept 12/13) – Future commando helicopters join Royal Marines in the field for the first time. Former Army Merlin HC 3s.
* Aviation Week (Jan 14/11) – Merlin’s New Look. Discusses the 30 Merlin Mk2s.
* AgustaWestland (Dec 1/06) – AgustaWestland launches HEAT programme for EH101.