In focus: the Wildcat multi role helicopter in service with the Royal Navy
The Wildcat has been in service with the RN since 2016 and is beginning to build up a good record of success in active service. Here we take a look at the development history and the capability of naval variant Wildcat HMA.2
The Westland Lynx HAS.2 formally entered service in September 1976 and 60 aircraft were eventually bought for the RN. It was a giant leap in capability from the very basic Westland Wasp it replaced, being fast, agile and versatile. 24 Lynx were deployed in a baptism of fire during the 1982 Falklands War and using Sea Skua missiles (that had not even been fully qualified for service) knocked out at least 3 Argentine vessels. 4 Lynx were lost on ships that were either hit or sunk but none were lost in combat. The Lynx quickly became valued as a prime weapons system for frigates and destroyers and achieved considerable export success to navies around the world. In 1986 a specially modified Lynx achieved the world helicopter speed record of over 400 Km/h, which still stands today.
54 surviving HAS.2 aircraft were upgraded with better engines to HAS.3 standard along with a purchase of 23 new-build HAS.3 bringing the total to 77 in service with the RN in the mid-1980s. The Lynx played a significant part in the naval battles of the first Gulf War in 1991. Aircraft from HMS Cardiff, Gloucester, Manchester and Brazen used Sea Skua missiles to destroy 14 Iraqi naval vessels during 21 separate engagements that lasted over 13 hours. From 1992 existing airframes received a substantial upgrade to HMA.8 standard. The Gem engines were improved, new BERP rotor blades and a composite tail rotor fitted. A radome for Seaspray Mark III 360º radar was fitted to the nose (although the Mk III radar was never actually fitted as an economy measure). New avionics and flotation gear were added and the main elements of this upgrade would see the aircraft serve until its retirement in 2017.
From ‘Future Lynx’ to Wildcat
There were some who argued the Lynx could have been replaced far more cheaply by either purchasing more Merlins, or by obtaining existing foreign equivalents such as the NH90 or Sikorsky MH-60 Seahawk. These options, which would have been a very mixed blessing in service, would also have been the end for Westland. (Renamed AugustaWestland in 2000 and was subsequently rebranded as Leonardo Helicopters in 2016. British company GKN sold its stake in AgustaWestland in 2004, making the company a wholly Italian-owned subsidiary of Finmeccanica.) Building more Merlins would likely have been done at the Vergiate plant in Italy, leaving ‘Future Lynx’ as the only realistic way to sustain British jobs and skills at the Yeovil factory, a military-industrial asset no stranger to political controversies.
In 2002 the MoD began the assessment phase Battlefield Light Utility Helicopter (BLUH) and Surface Combatant Maritime Rotorcraft (SCMR) to replace the Lynx in Army and RN service respectively. By 2004 it was clear the BLUH was going to be too expensive and the specification was pared back to a simpler battlefield reconnaissance version which resulted in the more austere Wildcat AH.1 operated by the Army and Joint Helicopter Force today.
The £1Bn contract for Future Lynx helicopters was placed with AugustaWestland in 2006, promising 40 aircraft for the Army and 30 for the Navy. By 2009 the cost of the project had risen to £1.7Bn despite a reduction from the original plan for 70 aircraft down to 62 (28 for the RN, 34 for the Army). In December 2016 the MoD stated that the forecast lifetime cost of the whole AW159 Wildcat aircraft programme, including development, acquisition, training and in-service support is £5.2 billion.
The new aircraft is undoubtedly considerably superior to what it’s replacing, but what is often overlooked in that in 2009 the RN had 62 Lynx which are being replaced by just 28 Wildcat. Despite the lesson from the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan that you can never have enough helicopters, the total number owned by UK armed forces will have roughly halved between 2009 and 2019.
Despite appearing to be very similar, Wildcat comprises 95% new components compared with the RN Lynx HMA.8. However much of the technology had already been developed for the Super Lynx 300 that was exported to several navies. Wildcat also incorporates some of the avionics developed for the Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme (CSP) when it was upgraded to HM2 standard. The newest innovation is the more angular and ‘stealthy’ light alloy and composite airframe made with fewer parts.
The Wildcat has almost the same dimensions as the Lynx, although does not have a folding tail rotor. RN destroyers and frigates all now have much larger hangars than when the Lynx entered service, being Merlin-capable, with space for up to 2 Wildcats. Key features inherited from the Lynx to aid shipboard operation are the fixed tricycle undercarriage that can withstand hitting the deck at a vertical descent of 3.5m/s. The main rotors can generate negative lift, which together with the deck lock harpoon system designed to engage with the grid in the centre of the flight deck, secure the aircraft tightly to the deck in heavy weather. In the event of ditching, the flotation system automatically inflates 4 airbags which should keep the waterproof fuselage afloat. The airframe and engines are fully marinised with excellent corrosion protection. The Wildcat was designed to be more durable and have a lower maintenance requirement than the Lynx. Currently, it undergoes checks at fixed intervals – after 25, 50, 100, 200 and 300 hours and has generally proven very reliable in service.
With a Maximum Take Off Weight (MTOW) of around 6 tonnes, the Wildcat is heavier, slightly slower at 157 knots and less nimble than the Lynx. 30% of additional engine power and new rotor design is particularly important to improve its performance in hot conditions and high altitudes, one of the problems with the Lynx. When empty the aircraft weighs around 3.3 tonnes enabling it to lift a 2.6-tonne payload of weapons, fuel and crew. Crashworthy seats and an armoured floor considerably improve protection for the crew in an accident or if under fire. Cabin capacity is slightly smaller than the Lynx which had sling-style benches, allowing up to eight people to be crammed in. The new seats reduce passenger capacity to four.
The Seaspray 7400E AESA radar, MX-15Di electro-optical/FLIR camera and avionics make the Wildcat a capable Information, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) platform. The 360º Seaspray radar can track up to 30 targets simultaneously and has far better range and clarity than the legacy radars. The EO camera can identify large ships from up to 80 miles away on a clear day from a height. The operational potential of this capability is reduced by an economy measure made in 2008. The tactical data link (TDL) that would allow reconnaissance and targeting data to be sent securely to and from the ship was deleted from the Wildcat specification. During the recent documentary about HMS Duncan operating in the Black Sea, we were treated to the spectacle of the aircrew having just landed on the ship rushing to the ops room to allow imagery shot from the helicopter to be downloaded from a laptop. With a mobile phone you can FaceTime grandma on another continent but a Wildcat helicopter cannot pass real-time imagery to its parent ship.Wildcat-diagram-3
Work on building the first ‘Future Lynx’ began at Yeovil in October 2007. By then named the ‘Lynx Wildcat’, the prototype made its maiden flight in November 2009 (although it is now known as just “Wildcat’). The first production aircraft delivered to the RN made its maiden flight in January 2013. HMS Lancaster was the first ship to deploy operationally with the Wildcat embarked in March 2015. The last of the 28 aircraft was delivered to the RN in October 2016. Each airframe has a 2,000 hr fatigue life and the aircraft type is intended to remain in service for 30 years.
In May 2009 700W Naval Air Squadron (NAS) was formed to evaluate and conduct trails on the Wildcat, prior to its entry into service. When this task was completed in October 2014 it was merged with 702 (Lynx) NAS to form 825 NAS. 825 generates 4 ship’s flights and is also the operational conversion unit for the Wildcat HMA.2 It trains new aircrew and converted former Lynx aircrew and engineers to Wildcat, while also being responsible for tactical and operational development of the aircraft. A ‘flight’ is an aircraft and typically unit of 9 personnel – the pilot and observer (both officers) usually supported by 7 air engineer technician ratings.
815 NAS is the primary frontline Wildcat unit and consists of an HQ element and can generate up to 12 small ship’s flights. The Maritime Interdiction (MI) Flight is also part of 815 NAS – 2 double-manned flights held an exceptionally high readiness to support UK Special Forces. It is available for Counter Narcotics, Counter Piracy and Maritime Counter Terrorism operations. The MI Wildcats may be used to providing top cover or troop insertion/extraction for the Special Boat Service. A 43 Commando Maritime Sniper Team (MST) or SBS Sniper maybe embarked for these operations. The two MI Wildcats were used to support two 846 NAS Merlins that delivered special forces to retake the MV Grande Tema when the crew were threatened by stowaways in the Thames Estuary on 21 December 2018.
847 Naval Air Squadron is equipped with the Wildcat AH1, manned by RN and Royal Marine aircrew, its main task is battlefield reconnaissance and is part of the Commando Helicopter Force.
The Wildcat has achieved modest export success. South Korea has bought 8 HMA.2. Faced with a serious threat from North Korean submarines around their coasts there are fitted with dipping sonar and are also equipped with K745 Cheong Sangeo torpedoes and Israeli-made Spike NLOS ER anti-ship missiles. South Korea are pleased with the aircraft but Leonardo has faced unproven claims of bribery surrounding their sale and the Koreans seem willing to hold an open competition with other manufacturers for a second batch of 12 helicopters. The Philippines have also bought 2 Wildcats but the big hope remains that the German Navy will select the aircraft as it plans to replace its 22 ageing Lynx by 2025. A Wildcat flight from 815 NAS deployed with the elderly German frigate Lübeck in 2017, just managing to fit the aircraft in the small hangar.
The fighting Wildcat
The Wildcat HMA.2 has multiple roles including anti-surface and submarine warfare, force protection, transport and ISTAR. In the anti-surface role the primary weapon will be the (FASGW-H) Sea Venom/ANL anti-ship missile, successor to Sea Skua which left RN service at the same time as the Lynx. Sea Venom is designed to be used in complex and cluttered littoral environments and has precise targeting features. Unlike the Sea Skua, the helicopter does not need to stay in position to illuminate the target with its radar until the missile hits, reducing the time it’s exposed to counter-attack. However, the Wildcat must still close to within about 20km of the target before launch, placing it within the range of SAM systems carried by some modern small combatants.
Wildcat will carry a completely new class of missile system into RN service. The (FASGW-L) Martlet lightweight Multi-Role Missile (LMM) is designed to be a low-cost way to provide defence against the asymmetric threat from small craft, suicide boats or unmanned surface vehicles. Multiple small targets with minimal radar signature can be dealt with using its laser and infra-red guidance. The MX-15Di EO/IR turret on the aircraft’s nose has an Active Laser Generation Unit (ALGU) that transmits a coded laser beam to guide the LMM. The LMM-equipped Wildcat would be an ideal solution to the threat posed by Iranian small boat swarms in the Persian Gulf for example. (We will examine Sea Venom and Martlet in more detail in a future article.)
A £90 million FASGW and Wildcat integration contract was placed with Leonardo in 2014. This includes the development of a new aerodynamic weapons-carriage wing which has two hardpoints on each side for a combination of missile or torpedo loads. Sea Venom and Martlet are due to enter service with the RN in 2020 but full operating capability will not be until 2024 as there is a long series of testing and tactical development work required first. During 2020 FASGW integration trials using the new weapons wing will include the first live firings in the UK.
Wildcats will not routinely embark on the QEC aircraft carriers but it is planned that a minimum of two Wildcats will be embarked on escort vessels within the Carrier Task Group. Mounting the M3M or GPMG guns they will have a critical force protection role, particularly when entering or leaving harbour and in confined waters. At sea they will be held at readiness to provide protection from small surface threats probably with LMM and Sea Venom fitted.
Wildcat is also designed to drop the Stingray anti-submarine homing torpedo. Stingray is probably the best weapon of its kind in the world but has a limited area it can search, so must be dropped relatively close to the submarine contact. Unlike the Merlin HM.2, which is equipped with dipping sonar and sonobuoys, the Wildcat has no way of confirming a submarine contact itself and must rely on targeting data via radio from its parent ship or another platform. Hunting submarines is demanding and difficult, even in the most favourable conditions and the lack of dipping sonar may restrict the Wildcat’s effectiveness in killing submarines. Although obviously not its intended primary role, a Type 45 destroyer, which is already constrained by the detection limitations of a bow-mounted sonar, paired with a Wildcat does not inspire confidence as an independent ASW asset. Fitting a dipping sonar to the Wildcat would greatly increase its ASW capability but it takes up considerable cabin space and adds weight, restricting its effectiveness in its many other roles. The Wildcat has less than half the endurance of the Merlin (about 2 hours 15 minutes v 5 hours) so it is clear the Merlin is the vastly superior submarine hunter while the Wildcat is better suited in the surface search and attack role. If the RN had plenty of helicopters, this would not be a significant issue but the ability to perform in multiple roles becomes important when there are so few assets.
WIST, WTC and WINFRA
The Wildcat Integrated Support & Training (WIST) commenced in In April 2017. This £271million contract with Leonardo will sustain the whole Wildcat fleet for the next 5 years with the provision of spares, technical support and ground-based training for both aircrew and maintainers. This work provides 500 jobs at RNAS Yeovilton, where the Wildcat Training Centre (WTC) and zonal maintenance facilities are located, and at Leonardo’s Yeovil factory. The WTC has two Indra Full-Motion Flight Simulators (FMFS), a Flight Training Device (FTD) and Cockpit Procedures Trainer (CPT). The facility is run by a mixed team of 11 Army, Navy and civilian instructors. There are also 2 airframes used to teach mechanical and avionics systems to engineers.
In July 2017 the DIO completed the Wildcat Infrastructure (WINFRA) programme at RNAS Yeovilton to support the Wildcat in-service with the RN and Army. 4 major projects with a value of between £8 million and £52 million included the construction of new training and office facilities, squadron buildings and living accommodation. Several Hangars were refurbished and Yeovilton is now a modern and ideal home for the Wildcat force.
Wildcat in action
Since entering service in 2015 the Aircraft has been deployed in a variety of theatres. Typically the Wildcat has been favoured over the Merlin for Type 45s and Type 23s on long deployments to the Gulf or Pacific. A Wildcat has also been embarked on Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels stationed in the Caribbean, ready to respond to natural disasters or conduct anti-narcotics patrols. Operation Ruman in the wake of hurricane Irma, saw Wildcats from HMS Ocean and RFA Mounts bay worked hard in disaster relief operations in 2017. In September 2017 while operating for RFA Mounts Bay, 216 flight rescued a mother and her two children stranded on the upturned hull of a boat capsized by Hurricane Maria. A Wildcat HMA.2 based on HMS Monmouth made the first landing by this aircraft type on HMS Queen Elizabeth during September 2018 and provided force protection for the Westlant18 deployment. A Wildcat is currently deployed on HMS Dragon in the Gulf and has played a significant role in the 4 major drugs seizures made by the ship (so far) during this deployment on maritime security operations.
When Martlet and Sea Venom are fully operational the RN will gain a significant punch, particularly important for defending the carrier battle group but transport, ISTAR and SAR operations will be the staple missions for these aircraft. Wildcat has only just begun to show its worth and will doubtless be flying and in almost daily use for the next 25 years or more.