The Other Merlin: Merlin HC3/4 numbers

Most people have fallen in love with long serving UK military aircraft like the Harrier, the Spitfire and perhaps the Sea King Helicopter. The Sea King Mk4 (the troop carrying version) will soon leaving active service and will be replaced by the Merlin HC.3/HC.4.

Under the Future Force 2020 (not really SDSR 2010), 25 RAF Merlin HC.3s would be modified and transferred to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Army (also see this). Or more specifically, the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) of, or rather for the Royal Marines. The plan has sort of proceeded smoother than most other post SDSR 2010 projects, with 846 NAS being the first squadron to gain these aircraft and then next, 845 NAS. In fact, 846 NAS just returned to RNAS Yeovilton (HMS Heron) with six/6 of these new helicopters. I believe, as the Defense Industry Daily article says, that there were to be at least seven/7, so maybe one more will join it (more on this below). At around the same time, the UK MOD announced a sustainment contract for both Merlin Helicopters. Some may say this is typical Conservative/Tory PR for their General Election 2015/GE2015 campaign, but you still do need investment to create and sustain helicopters.

The whole new Royal Navy/FAA Merlin Fleet will specifically consist of

…845 NAS and 846 NAS each operating 10 Merlin HC.4s, with five aircraft in the maintenance fleet. Each squadron will operate three flights. 845 NAS will have three deployable, go-anywhere flights, with each flight deploying with four Merlins. 846 NAS will have the Operational Conversion Flight, Maritime Counter Terrorist Flight, and a deployable flight to bolster 845 NAS if required.

Now that immediately seems strange. 10 aircraft per each active medium-lift squadron, but you want 4 x Merlins per flight? That would mean 12 x Merlins per Squadron. I guess the extra 2-4 will be drawn from the five/5 helicopters in maintenance? Or would this four/4 per flight configuration only occur during active operations/wartime? Pro-military people would of course still argue this 20 + 5 configuration is too small. I say it’s not bad consideration the fleet size is smaller than it’s counterpart, where 30 HM2 or Mk2 have been ordered and possibly eight more may be converted. Possibly.

Now, let’s go even deeper into the helicopter itself. As said above, it is replacing the veteran Sea King helicopter Mk4. The Sea King supposedly is able to carry 28 troops while these Merlins will only carry carry 24 equipped troops. (I’m not so sure the Sea King’s were able to carry that many soldiers. The Agusta-Westland site says the Merlin can carry up to 38 troops but that’s only possibly without gear). There’s a good description on the upgrades of the Merlin HC.3/HC./3A to the Merlin HC.4 in this Naval Technology article. It is pretty well-written so I shan’t summarise it here.

Overall, the Merlin HC.4 plan seems pretty alright, except how the FAA will detail the number of aircraft per flight. The maximum of twelve/12 Merlins for 845 NAS (as you see 846 NAS ultimately is for training and counter-terrorism, with only one flight for troop transport), means the CHF alone can only life a small almost company-sized force from ship to shore or from land to land. This is the stark reality of Future Force 2020.

This post will be updated later.


The Merlin Mk2 Challenge

The Merlin Helicopter Fleet was was identified as one of the two main Naval Helicopter for the Royal Navy, the other being the Lynx Wildcat. The Merlin Mk2 in particular, would be the key anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter for the ASW-centric Royal Navy, an upgraded version of the Mk1. There however, is another role for the Merlin Mk2. It is to be used as a Airborne Early Warning (AEW)/Airborne Surveillance And Control (ASAC) aircraft. This after all is to replace the age-old Sea King Mk7 which have held the ASAC role for a long time since after the Falklands War.

All seems rather simple, but the challenge boils down to numbers. It was longed planned that only only 30 out of 38 Mk1s would be upgraded to the new Mk2 standard. Dividing that between ASW and AEW/ASAC roles, not forgetting there needs to be Merlins for the Type 23s/45s and training/operational conversion units, 30 is a rather low number. Then in May 2014, a report stated that another few Mk1s would be upgraded although the number was not stated. This report further revealed further details:

In the current fleet configuration, 25 Merlin Mk. 2s need to be available at readiness with five in maintenance. Of those 25, 14 will be dedicated to the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier (QEC) when that ship puts to sea as part of a task group, with aircraft configured for the ASW role and the airborne early warning mission, equipped with the radar system selected through the Crowsnest program.

That sounds much better for the future Royal Navy, particularly for the carrier-centred Response Force Task Group (RFTG)/COUGAR deployment. Even so, the numbers must be finalised to be more than 30 to make the Mk2 force credible. From the quote, 14 Mk2s will operate off the Queen-Elizabeth Class carrier, though this depends on the mission. This news release, particularly page 71, states that an adequate force would be 4 Merlins for ASW activities, and 4 for AEW/ASAC. It has been reported that only ten Crowsnest (see also this article ) radar sets would be purchased, and not all ten will probably be used. I would wage, as has others, that at the maximum eight (8) sets will be for AEW/ASAC duties, and the remainder for training/OCU.

It sounds nice to have more than 30 Merlin Mk2s but the number must be finalised soon. Stepping back, it’s all about the two carriers. If we have 14 Merlin Mk2s operational on one carrier but the other rotates, we need spare Mk2s to deploy on the next carrier when it relieves the second. Theoretically, there should be 14×2=28 Merlin Mk2s for rotation, though that would mean really stretching the Royal Navy’s budget. But let’s be conservative and have only four Merlin Mk2s (in rotation with the AEW/ASAC Merlins). That means exactly 34 Merlin Mk2s to be brought in service. There’s also the other eleven (11) Merlin Mk2s by the way. We know around five or six (5/6) will be for the small ship flights, 829 Naval Air Squadron (NAS). That leaves the other half for training/OCU or even rotation if the budget is tight and regretably, only 30 Merlin Mk2s will be around from 2015.

Another challenge is which helicopter squadrons will be around when the final numbers of Merlin Mk2s will be fixed. At present:

Merlin Squadrons:
814 NAS
820 NAS (both ASW Merlin Mk1/Mk2s based upon the assault ships/QECs/RFA ships
824 NAS (training/OCU “Parent” unit for the ASW Squadrons)
829 NAS (small ship flights for Type 23/26/35 frigates and destroyers)

Sea King Mk7 AEW/ASAC Squadrons:

849 NAS (training/OCU “Parent” unit for the AEW/ASAC Squadrons)
854 NAS (AEW/ASAC Squadron)
857 NAS (AEW/ASAC Squadrons)

Basing upon 30 Merlin Mk2s, 829 NAS will definitely survive, especially with the future Type 26 frigates with Sonar 2087. 849 NAS will survive until at leasr 2018, operating seven/7 Sea King Mk7. It will probably disband afterwards. Now with 30 Merlin Mk2s and 14 operational on a QEC, that would mean 1) at least one squadron on the QEC. This one squadron will govern all 14 Mk2s, but they be split amongst ASW, AEW/ASAC and Search and Rescue (SAR) duties (you need SAR for an aircraft carrier! Don’t just depend on your escorts). Or 2), two (2) Squadrons governing all 14 Merlin Mk2s on the carrier, meaning one squadron for ASW, one for AEW/ASAC.

As stated, there should (logically) be rotating Merlin Squadrons (one/two back at a Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) and those on the QEC so that as the carriers rotate, the flight personnel and helicopters do as well. Looking at the picture, since ASW is the bigger component on a QEC (but not more critical), 814 and 820 NAS both should survive post 2015/2020 so that they rotate between each carrier. If option 2) occurs, that would mean 845 and 857 NAS will survive, or one of the NAS will survive but will be double manned (like part of 815 NAS). Not forgetting the 5 or 6 NAS remaining from the 25-14-5/6. Those will either be training/OCU or even a Test and Evaluation Squadron. So either 824 or 849 NAS will survive, but not both.

All this is of course guesswork. But bottom line is that there must be more than 30 Merlin Mk2s in the future and enough NAS squadrons to make both carriers worthwhile.

Update: Well, the Royal Navy has revealed some part of it. 849 NAS, the OCU for the Sea King Mk.7 ASAC/AEW will be the one and only ASAC squadron after 2018, and turn into a front line squadron. It will have three flights of possible six Merlin Mk2s will the Crowsnest technology (logical guess.). Two of the flights are drawn from the two current frontline ASAC/AEW squadrons, 854 and 857 NAS. They will be named “Normandy Flight” and “Palembang Flight” respectively. 857 NAS will disband in 2015 and 854 later. See this link. Sad case for only one ASAC/AEW Squadron but good confirmation.