AgustaWestland has received a contract from the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) to convert the Royal Air Force's (RAF's) 25 AW101 Merlin Mk3 and Mk3A helicopters for maritime operations by the Royal Navy.
Under the £330m Merlin Life Sustainment Programme (MLSP), the Anglo-Italian helicopter manufacturer will work on upgrading Mk3 and Mk3A with new glass cockpits and avionics, lashing points, a folding main rotor-head and tail, additional communications equipment, in addition to an improved undercarriage.
The MLSP will finally see the Merlin replace the Royal Navy's ageing Sea King Mk4 helicopters, which are scheduled for retirement in 2016.
AgustaWestland CEO Daniele Romiti said: "The MLSP will ensure the Royal Navy Commando Helicopter Force's capability will be enhanced as a result of the AW101 Merlin's greater payload, range, speed, as well as benefitting from commonality with the Merlin Mk2 platform."
An initial seven Merlin helicopters being delivered as part of the phase 1, will offer the Royal Navy an 'interim capability' between the decommissioning of the Sea King in early 2016 and the commissioning of fully configured new Merlin by mid-2018.
Phase 2 involves delivery of fully converted 25 Merlin helicopters between 2017 and 2020, which will be optimised for ship operations.
UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the latest investment will help secure British jobs, providing security to thousands of workers and their families.
"This is also an important step in ensuring our armed forces have the best helicopters available, safeguarding the army's attack helicopter capability and providing the Royal Navy and Royal Marines with an upgraded, modern Commando Helicopter Force," Hammond said.
To be designed and manufactured at AgustaWestland's Yeovil plant, the upgraded helicopters will incorporate two touch screens for controlling the aircraft's systems and mission equipment.
Upon being based at the nearby Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, the Merlins will be used to carry Royal Marines, essential supplies and cargo from sea to land.
Image: The upgraded 25 RAF's AW101 Merlin Mk3 and Mk3A helicopters will be deployed maritime operations by the Royal Navy. Photo: courtesy of AgustaWestland - a Finmeccanica Company.