The first of the Royal Navy’s new ‘eyes in the sky’ has entered service – getting ready to protect the nation’s flagship. The first Merlin ‘Crowsnest’ helicopter – which scours the heavens with its radar looking for potential foes – will now begin operational training, ahead of the maiden deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth this spring. It marks a significant moment for the Royal Navy as we become a carrier task group navy capable of deploying around the world as a sovereign group or with the allies.
The distinctive-looking helicopter – a large radar dome or ‘bag’ sticks out from the fuselage, earning the aircraft the affectionate nickname of ‘baggers’ – will provide airborne surveillance and the control of other aircraft (known as ASaC) in the carrier’s strike group. The new generation of ‘baggers’ pick up the mantle of the Navy’s veteran Sea Kings of 849 Naval Air Squadron (now retired) – and like their predecessors will be based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, which also provides anti-submarine Merlin aircraft to protect the Fleet.
Training by aircrews to use the new system, which allows crews to conduct air and missile defence as well as strike command and control, has been underway since the autumn. These aircraft will work side by side with the rest of the Merlin Mk2 force to provide a world-class line of defence for our global navy, adding above water expertise to our already renowned submarine hunting skills. Coupled also with the Wildcat attack helicopter, the UK Carrier Strike Group will soon operate one of the most capable and versatile helicopter air groups.
The Merlins have been kitted out with new mission systems and radars from Thales Group by aerospace company Leonardo in Yeovil, overseen by Lockheed Martin.
Each helicopter has a crew of three: two observers (mission and tactical specialists) and one pilot. High above the fleet with their sophisticated sensors, they enable the carrier strike group commander to see, understand and react well beyond the horizon for any air or surface threats. They can also act as a control centre for strike operations between the carrier and the ship’s F-35 Lightning jets.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is due to deploy to the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and into the Indo-Pacific region in an operational deployment with the UK’s allies and partners.
Photo credits: UK MoD Crown Copyright 2021; UK MoD Crown Copyright 2021 / Kyle Heller