The strike carrier’s eye in the sky – update on the Crowsnest project

As the clock runs down to the first operational carrier strike group deployment, Lockheed Martin, Thales and Leonardo are working to complete and flight-test the Crowsnest system that will provide airborne early warning capability. Here we take a look at the progress on the project.

Despite organic radar surveillance for the fleet being critical, the start of the Crowsnest project was postponed by the MoD for two years until 2016. This kind of short-term cost-saving measure is typical of the way MoD sometimes has to ‘push projects to the right’ in order to balance in-year budgets. This financial management practice is in dire need of reform, often resulting in additional costs and, in the case of Crowsnest, a mismatch between its delivery and the timeline for the carrier’s first operational deployment.

Progress was initially slow but in 2018, the MoD agreed an initial operating capability (IOC) date of March 2020 with the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin. About 90 people initially employed by Thales at their Crawley facility were responsible for the most challenging aspect of the project. Thales are providing both of the critical components – the updated inverse synthetic aperture Searchwater radar and Cerberus Mission System.

Cerberus will utilise touch screen technology for the operators and feature an autonomous artificial intelligence-based tracking system. A new target identification method uses a library match airborne contacts, as well as introducing fully integrated electronic support measures. An enhanced mission recording and replay system will allow both real-time and post-mission data analysis and training opportunities.

Unfortunately, the demands of the software development issues involved seem to have been underestimated and in particular, the integration with the existing avionics of the Merlin Mk2. By January 2019, Thales admitted it would fail to meet its delivery targets and had not communicated properly with LM. In May 2019 both companies allocated more resources and personnel to the project and the first radar flight trial was made, six weeks later than planned in February 2020. Assuming no further issues emerge, IOC will be delayed for 18 months until September 2021, with FOC in May 2023.

To compound Crowsnest’s rocky development path, a Merlin provided for flight trials, the responsibility of Leonardo Helicopters, was left outdoors and needed repairs leaving it only useable for ground testing. Another of the RN’s precious frontline Merlins had to be allocated to the task, reducing its fleet availability. The compressed testing programme has also created additional pressure on the provision of Merlin spare parts. Despite the challenges of COVID, flight testing by three Crowsnest-equipped Merlins has continued throughout the summer with the new ‘baggers’ being seen regularly in the Somerset skies.

The ‘baggers’. Three Merlin Mk 2s now assigned to the Crowsnest test programme at Leonardo Helicopters Yeovil, 9 Sept 2020. This represents 10% of the Mk2 fleet. (Photo: Chandler Candy)

849 disbanded

With just 30 Merlin Mk2 helicopters the force is stretched. 9 aircraft are expected to deploy with the carrier strike group in May 2021, including 3 aircraft fitted with pre-IOC Crowsnest kits. Allowing for up to a third of aircraft in maintenance and some allocated to training duties with 824 NAS this leaves very few available for assigning to Type 23 frigates and to nuclear deterrent protection work.

on 21 April 2020, 849 Naval Air Squadron was quietly disbanded. This was formerly the Sea King ASaC squadron and was supposed to transition to be Crowsnest operators. The specialist ASaC-trained observers will be retained but absorbed into 820 Naval Air Squadron. 820 is equipped with the Merlin Mk2 and its the frontline ASW squadron, primarily dedicated to flying from the aircraft carriers. Until the retirement of the venerable Sea King in 2018, 849 had the luxury of its own aircraft but since the 10 Crowsnest kits being purchased will be rotated between available aircraft, there is some sense in absorbing the personnel within the administrative umbrella of 820.

When the Carrier Strike Group sails on its first operational deployment in May 2021 it should carry 3 merlins with pre-IOC standard Crowsnest kits. Depending on how well the technical development, test and trails programme progresses over the next few months, this may offer almost full capability or be advanced prototypes that may not be fully reliable. What is clear is that there will very limited time for the aircrews to work up the new capability and conduct meaningful exercises in conjunction with F-35 jets.

Despite the overdue introduction into service, Crowsnest should ultimately deliver an effective ISR at sea and over land, if needed. When the capabilities of the F-35’s sensors are fully exploited and paired with Crowsnest, the situational awareness of the Carrier Strike Group will be excellent. Critics will doubtless bemoan that this is not the gold standard E-2D Hawkeye or speculate about non-existent V-22 Osprey-based AEW solutions but this is an affordable and attainable solution, given the RN’s resources.


(Main photo: Chandler Candy)