YEOVIL, England — Concerns are mounting in the U.K. that anti-submarine warfare (ASW) skills are beginning to erode because of competing operational demands and equipment decisions.
The fear, voiced by government and industry officials, goes beyond the decision last year to cancel the Nimrod MRA4 maritime patrol aircraft project. Some high-end skills to hunt submarines are no longer getting adequate training, warns an industry official.
Additionally, the community is having to contend with the evolution of the threat and the emergence of diesel-electric submarines operating near the coast where they can be harder to spot. “There is no letup in the proliferation” of the threat, notes a military official.
With Nimrod’s cancellation, the U.K. airborne ASW role now falls exclusively to the Royal Navy and its Merlin helicopter fleet, which is currently undergoing a major upgrade. Although designed largely as a service-life extension program to deal with aging equipment issues, the Merlin Mk2, now in flight testing, also will introduce capability enhancements to better handle the newer threats.
For instance, the system features a new acoustic processor able to handle transmit waveforms to improve operations in shallower, littoral environments, says Nigel Ellis, Lockheed Martin’s project chief engineer. It also is a smaller system combining the processing of the active dipping sonar and passive acoustics in one unit.
The capabilities of the helicopter’s radar are also expanding. In addition to providing an imaging mode, better target track modes for littoral operations are being introduced.
Another mission potentially on the rise for the helicopters is supporting Britain’s nuclear submarine deterrent to assure the Trident-capable submarines are not trailed when they leave port. It is not a new mission, but Cmdr. Kevin Dodd, the Royal Navy Merlin Force commander, notes that it could get greater emphasis in the wake of the Nimrod’s cancellation.
The Royal Navy plans to upgrade 30 of its Merlins. An option for eight more modifications was not exercised, although the Nimrod cancellation could lead to the additional work eventually being put on contract.
The goal is to keep the helicopter flying until at least 2029, notes Jeff Streznetcky, managing director for helicopter systems at prime contractor Lockheed Martin U.K. Integrated Systems.
The first two of four test helicopters are now in flight testing at AgustaWestland’s Yeovil, England, facility. The flight-test program, which began in November, is due to run into 2013 and comprise about 750 hr.
Full-rate production is slated to start this year — and reach up to 10 rotorcraft at one time with a nine-month modification cycle — with the Royal Navy to receive its first production Merlin Mk.2 in the fourth quarter of 2012. The second preproduction airframe is due to arrive next month. The initial in-service date for the Mk2 is planned for late 2013, followed by full operational capability a year later.
This year should see the software undergo flight testing to run the full mission system, with later updates largely intended to resolve system integration issues. Development has encountered some difficulties, but Streznetcky notes none are outside of what would be expected with a software-intensive mission system and that the program remains on plan.