Maiden flight for Crowsnest – the Royal Navy’s eye in the sky

The regeneration of RN carrier strike capability took another small step forward on 28th March when a Merlin HM2 fitted with the Crowsnest Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) system completed the first test flight from Yeovil Aerodrome. Here we examine progress on the Crowsnest project.

As discussed in a previous article, Crowsnest is a development of the existing Thales Searchwater radar and Cerberus mission system and is supposed to offer an affordable, low-risk solution compared with the other more radical and advanced options that were considered. The radar is contained in the dark blue inflatable bag that swivels down below the aircraft during flight from the port-side weapon station. The mechanically-rotated radar gives long-range air, maritime, and land detection and tracking with integrated electronic support measures. The operator’s stations inside the aircraft feature also some interface enhancements over the previous system, including touchscreens.

The initial test flights are to assess the handling qualities of the aircraft with the new external radar equipment fitted. Once the flight envelope has been established, the testing will move on to the operation of the radar system itself and trials are expected to take most of 2019. In October 2018, 744 Naval Air Squadron was reformed to work with the independent civilian Aircraft Test and Evaluation Centre (in partnership with QinetiQ) at MoD Boscombe Down. One of their first tasks will be providing developmental flying and support to help bring Crowsnest into frontline service.

Aircraft ZH831 lands at Yeovil after the first test flight. The inflatable radome is in the raised position for landing but will rotate down 90º when the radar is in use. The yellow probe under the nose carries instrumentation for data gathering during testing and is not an in-flight refuelling probe as some assume. (Photo: Leonardo UK)

The ‘baggers’ of 849 Naval Sir Squadron who will fly surveillance missions aircraft from the carriers, are in the process of converting from Sea King to Merlins, pending delivery of the first Crowsnest kits. 10 kits are being purchased as part of a £269 million contract with Lockheed Martin UK and its subcontractors, Thales UK and Leonardo UK. All 30 of the Royal Navy’s Merlin HM2s are being modified by Leonardo so that the Crowsnest kits can be integrated on any helicopter when needed. It is expected that up to 5 Crowsnest-fitted Merlins will be embarked on the carrier for operational deployments. This is just enough to keep at least one aircraft airborne 24/7 for a sustained period to monitor the air and sea space around the carrier group. The Merlin HM2 fleet, comprising just 30 aircraft, will be extremely stretched just to meet the RN’s ASW requirements and it would seem unlikely all 10 Crowsnest kits will be fitted at once. Naval ASaC is highly versatile and is a valuable ISTAR asset for the UK as a whole, beyond working with the carrier. Its intelligence gathering abilities can be deployed at sea on general maritime security or inland, as it was in Afghanistan, where its sensitive radar can monitor the movement of vehicles.


Ready on time?

Flight trials were supposed to have started in late 2018 but the Crowsnest project appears to be at least 4 months begins schedule. The NAO report ‘Delivering Carrier Strike’ published in March 2017 rated the project ‘amber’ defined as “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist”. Neither the MoD or Lockheed Martin have commented on the nature of the problems. When the last Sea King Mk7 ASaC aircraft were withdrawn from service in September 2018 a ‘capability holiday’ of at least two years was expected, with Crowsnest scheduled to achieve initial operating capability (IOC) in late 2020, inline with HMS Queen Elizabeth achieving carrier strike IOC. There will be a considerable learning curve for the aircrew of 849 Squadron as they must learn to work effectively as part of the carrier air group and developing tactics and procedures for directing the F-35s. Delays bringing the system into service raises questions about whether fully worked up ASaC aircraft and aircrew will be available to embark on QE when she sails on her first operational deployment in 2021.

(Photo: Michael Coombs)