Military helicopter fleets undergo regular periods of upgrade and re-role, never more so than in an era of stringent defence cuts, when recycling is always preferable to new procurement. As well as ensuring all aircraft boast the latest technology, upholding a common specification makes ongoing maintenance more practicable and affordable - legacy systems get more costly the further they divert from new models.
One of the most significant of these programmes is the UK Ministry of Defence's Merlin Life Sustainment Programme (MLSP), under which AgustaWestland is converting 25 Royal Air Force AW101 Merlin Mk3 and Mk3A helicopters ready to be transferred to the Royal Navy to replace its fleet of Sea King Mk4 helicopters.
The programme is being carried out in two phases. Under Phase 1, seven helicopters will be rapidly converted to give the Royal Navy interim capability between its Sea King Mk 4s going out of service in April 2016 and the fully configured Merlins coming into service, with delivery starting in 2017. These aircraft will be fitted with a folding main rotor head, lashing points for securing the aircraft to the deck and several other minor modifications. They will be delivered to Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton between the second half of 2015 and early 2016.
Phase 2 will see all 25 aircraft upgraded to the full final specification of Merlin Mk 4, including the original seven Phase 1 aircraft coming back through, so at the end of the whole programme, there will be 25 fully configured aircraft. The main structural modification in this phase is the addition of an electrically folding tail, a feature that AgustaWestland has already delivered to the Italian Navy. It will differ from the folding tail already incorporated in the Royal Navy's existing Merlins as the RAF Merlins have a rear loading ramp which these aircraft will keep.
But it is not just the exterior that is getting an overhaul in Phase 2. The helicopters will also be fitted with a new cockpit which will be the same as the model being installed under a separate programme currently underway, the Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme (MCSP). MCSP will see 30 of the Royal Navy's Mk 1 Merlins upgraded to Mk 2. This means the navy will eventually have a fleet of Merlin Mk 2 and Mk 4s with essentially the same cockpit, so there will be a common cockpit across the Merlin fleet, which has significant benefits for training and moving crews between roles.
The first US Navy ship capable of tracking and shooting down ballistic missiles recently arrived in Spain.
Merlin Mk 4 will also incorporate an integrated defensive aid suite, some specific communications equipment for the Commander of Helicopter Force role and an integrated digital map.
Work on the Phase 2 production aircraft will start in 2016, beginning with three test aircraft on which testing and development work will be carried out. The main conversion programme starts in late 2016 with delivery beginning in the second half of 2017 and continuing through to 2020 AgustaWestland is currently halfway through the MCSP conversion programme, and MLSP will naturally follow on from that.
Testing and training
To confirm the upgraded Merlins are ready to enter service, the MoD has awarded QinetiQ a five-year, £16m contract to provide test and evaluation services. Working closely with AgustaWestland, QinetiQ will provide independent technical and safety advice as well as testing and support to the certification of the interim and full operating capability.
The work will take place at the MoD's Boscombe Down facility using military test pilots and flight test engineers under the terms of the QinetiQ's £5.6bn, 25-year long term partnership agreement with the MoD. As part of the contract QinetiQ will provide recommendations for release to service to ensure that the aircraft can be operated safely from Royal Navy ships.
It will follow a similar pattern to the testing phase for the AW159 Wildcat under which a combined test team of QinetiQ, AgustaWestland and the MoD carried out the testing and shared the results to save money and prevent duplication of effort.
AgustaWestland will also manage a competition to deliver a synthetic whole crew training equipment and infrastructure for the upgraded Merlins. The MoD already has a Merlin training facility at Royal Navy Air Station Culdrose which includes front and rear crew training devices and simulators. It has been upgraded to the same Merlin Mk 2 cockpit that is being fitted in the upgraded helicopters, opening the possibility of using or extending that facility to deliver the training for the Merlin Mk 4.
Once the Merlin Mk 4s are in service, AgustaWestland is under a contract with the MoD called Integrated Merlin Operational Support (IMOS) to provide all the support for the MoD's Merlin fleet. Both the Royal Navy and RAF fleets will continue to get converted to Merlin Mk 4 and to be supported through the IMOS programme, through to Merlin's planned out of service date in 2030.
New technology for modern combat
But MLSP is not just about ensuring the navy's helicopter fleet is fitted with the latest and greatest equipment; it will also ensure it is capable of engaging in new forms of combat. The RAF has been using its Merlin Mk3 and Mk3A helicopters as utility troop transporters in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and now these aircraft are being transferred to the navy, the modifications are essential so they can operate from its new carriers.
The original Merlin Mk 1 for the Royal Navy was procured in the early 90s with deliveries starting in 1997 and was designed and developed primarily to replace the Sea King as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter to search and destroy Russian submarines in the North Atlantic. While the navy wants to maintain an ASW capability, it is being called on to do many other activities in the Gulf and the Caribbean, and more widely disaster relief, anti-drug work, monitoring ships and counter piracy.
The Merlin Mk 2 has been fitted with new equipment to enable it to perform these roles better, making it more of a multi-role maritime helicopter rather than a dedicated ASW one. According to an AgustaWestland spokesperson, this issue of flexibility and multi-role capability is something that the company is seeing from many of its operators.
Few customers can now afford to procure helicopters for one dedicated role. Armed forces have increasingly limited budgets, but are being called on to do a wider range of roles with what they have. MLSP is just one programme among many supporting this demand.