In the first of a planned series of papers on the Royal Navy, its mission, issues to be overcome as it works up to important phase leading to the establishment of ‘Carrier Strike’ initial operating capability in late 2020, following introductory remarks on the Royal Navy and what we can expect as the year moves ahead, I will concentrate predominantly on aspects of Royal Navy rotary capability specifically in the form or Merlin Mk 2 operation in the ASW role. Over the coming weeks I will return to look at many other important aspects of the Royal Navy’s overall air and maritime role, its capacity, strengths, opportunities, issues and where in my view it may require more support.
The Government’s commitment to the Royal Navy can hardly be argued and remarks made by the Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon over the past year such as that “2017 is the start of a new era of maritime power, projecting Britain’s influence globally and delivering security at home” speak for themselves. Support is thus very self-evident but remarks such as these cannot hide the reality that Royal Navy resources are seriously stretched and that the available capacity it has to carry into the overall mission is limited. While there is absolutely no question of the Royal Navy not being able to handle all that is asked of it in both manpower and equipment capability terms, I cannot ignore that capacity is stressed.
Nevertheless, positives far outweigh negatives in my view and late spring 2017 should see the commissioning of ‘Astute’ class submarine, HMS Audacious and the keel laying of the seventh last of vessel of the class.
Government response to the National Shipbuilding Strategy document is also anticipated very soon and during the late summer this year the first of the two in-build Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers is due to arrive at Portsmouth Navy Base in order for sea trials to continue. July 2017 is expected to see the first Type 26 steel being cut together with naming decisions for the first three of the planned eight Type 26 Frigates that will be acquired over the next ten years. Finally, at some point this year we should hear about Type 31e procurement.
Along with the above we expect to see the introduction to service of the first Batch 2 River-class Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV), HMS Forth and which vessel is part of an overall £648 million investment by the Government in this now well proven very efficient capability. Completing the list of expected additions to the fleet during this year, RFA Tidesping is expected to arrive at Falmouth shortly before entering service in October and the second, RFA Tiderace is due to arrive in Falmouth in July.
All the above are to be regarded as huge positives for the Royal Navy and which over the coming years will be able to justifiably claim to be one of the most modern Navies in the world. Each Navy programme represent an important aspect of what is a ten-year £178 billion Defence Equipment plan by the Government and just as they are hugely important for a once again growing Royal Navy, neither should we forget that they are equally important for UK industry, jobs, skills, the economy and potential exports. Indeed, each of these important procurement programmes represents a major aspect of the Government’s Prosperity Agenda just as they also represent equally important aspects of sovereign capability, innovation and skills retention within the UK defence maritime industry.
Merlin Mk 2 operation is part of the overall Merlin Force operation conducted from RNAS Culdrose, a large and hugely important base located near Helston, Cornwall on the Lizard Peninsular. Loyalty, dedication and having the ability and desire to achieve all that is ever asked of it would be my definition of RNAS Culdrose. This is a large and very-well run Royal Navy Air Station, the largest single-site employer in Cornwall with around 3,000 personnel attached to the base, a figure that represents around 10% of all Royal Navy personnel or 6% of Naval Service. In subsequent pieces I will cover the work of the various Squadrons attached to the base and of how each delivers on its requirements – that will include 750 NAS which delivers world-class rear crew rotary capability training, 700X NAS Unmanned Air Systems, 736 NAS Hawk T Mk1A jet aircraft and the important role they play in Defence Operational Training. Today however, I will concentrate remarks on Merlin Force in respect of the ASW role and of 849 NAS ‘Crowsnest’.
In relation to understanding the overall mission and role of RNAS Culdrose nowhere can this be better defined than by saying that circa 80% of personnel at the bases are either deployed or standing at Very high Readiness to deploy. The base is also responsible for all Merlin helicopter training (3,000 engineers per year) and deep maintenance of what are known as ‘grey’ or ‘green’ Merlin helicopters, international defence training conducted on these aircraft, the Maritime Aviation Support Force and the School of Flight Deck Operations for all three armed forces.
The Royal Navy remains a formidable force and one that despite issues such as shortages of engineers and technicians continues to operate with distinction worldwide. Let me say here that despite concerns that we may all have that the Royal Navy today has insufficient capacity to meet current obligations due to a variety of different reasons. The Royal Navy’s ability to provide what the nation demands of it never has and never will be found wanting.
The mission of the Royal Navy is positioning Royal Navy Air Power wherever it may be needed each hour of every day of the year necessary – that is indeed my own description of what RNAS Culdrose is doing and does very well. As mentioned, in this first of three individual planned ‘commentary’ pieces on the Royal Navy over coming weeks I will place most emphasis today on aspects of rotary power that are conducted at or from RNAS Culdrose. In future weeks I will return to aspects of fixed wing, unmanned air systems together with other important aspects of what this superbly run base does and how its importance in carrier strike capability can be expected to grow over the coming few years.
I suspect that the Royal Navy Mission Statement should require little explanation to those of you that understand the importance of air power within a maritime environment. However, in addition to the defence and promotion of UK interests worldwide, it would be remiss not to remind that Royal Navy Air Power is also required to play a significant role protecting the Continuous At Sea Strategic Nuclear Deterrent plus other Royal Navy and allied NATO ships and missions both at sea and on land.
The Royal Navy is also responsible for protecting our international interests and our dependent territories together with the shores around the UK and our trade routes. This part of the mission is easy to take for granted but the addition of the new element, revival of ‘carrier strike’ capability significant adds to the overall mission role and it requires significant additional capacity and support. Initial Operating Capability (IOC) for ‘carrier strike’ is planned to be achieved in December 2020. This will require that the Royal Navy has in place all the requirements needed to play a wider ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) role – one that is to be regarded as being critical in terms of helping to defend the nation’s two planned Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.
Strong ISR capability is vital across all aspects of the defence and military arena but it is particularly so in the air and maritime environment. Royal Navy Air Power has a long and very proud history engaging in the Airborne Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) role and with the work-up towards replacing the existing fleet of 8 x Royal Navy Sea King Mk.7 (ASaC) Airborne Surveillance and Control force capability with that of Merlin Mk2 (these aircraft have already been upgraded to HM2 standard by Lockheed Martin) helicopter capability and that is to be fitted for the ASaC role with the ‘Crowsnest’ surveillance system designed to detect threats beyond the horizon. In slightly more detail ‘Crowsnest’ is effectively a significant update on the Thales Cerburus tactical sensor suite that provides 360 degree visibility from the underside of the Merlin Mk 2 helicopter providing vital airborne intelligence, surveillance over land and sea as well as superb tracking capability that is able to detect potential threats. It the most up to date rotary intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology available.
With the eventual support of the 9 x Boeing P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft capability which will be operated by the Royal Air Force from 2019 combined with additional ISR capability provided from the F-35 Lightning 2 Joint Strike Fighter capability itself, the Royal Navy will eventually have superb long range air, maritime and land detection and tracking capability. The UK will, in Lightning ll, have superb fast jet capability operated by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, but for the purposes of this exercise it is the integral part that ISR in the form of ASW requirement and ASaC role plays in the nation’s future carrier enabled power projection (CEPP) capability strategy plus other Merlin related requirements and issues that I concentrate on.
Let me begin by reminding that the planned retirement of the existing fleet of 8 (plus one stored) Royal Navy Sea King Mk 7 (ASaC) capability next year with that of Merlin Mk2 capability fitted with ‘Crowsnest’ requires an effective gap in capability of up to two years being taken in full rotary ISR/ASaC role before sufficient numbers of Merlin Mk 2 aircraft fitted with ‘Crowsnest’ and trained crews will be available. I am not alone in expressing such concerns and at its simplest this may need to be remedied by a further extension being given to the Sea King Mk. 7 capability. I am also concerned that while all thirty Merlin Mk 2 aircraft will be fitted to carry ‘Crowsnest’ as to why only 10 sets of Crowsnest on-board equipment is to be acquired.
Lockheed Martin is prime contractor for the Merlin Mk2 ‘Crowsnest’ programme and for which this may be regarded as a new and more powerful generation of the already successful Thales Searchwater radar and Cerberus mission system. Ten sets of ‘Crowsnest’ capability will be fitted to existing Merlin Mk2s helicopters in order to provide the Navy with an airborne surveillance and control capability (ASaC) and the sets will be moved between aircraft if and when necessary. My understanding is that the first trials of ‘Crowsnest’ are due to begin in Q2 2018.
Leaving the potential gap in ASaC capability aside before the ten new sets of ‘Crowsnest’ airborne radar system kits has been fitted (ISD for this is due Q2 2019 – IOC Q2 – 2020 and FOC due by Q2 2022) shortage of aircraft capacity and sufficient numbers of crews trained to operate it are also a concern.
While the Royal Navy Air Station Culdrose base likely has the largest compliment of military rotary capability of any European military base, this cannot in my view hide from the clear fact that in terms of rotary capability capacity the Royal Navy overall is now extremely stretched. Put another way would be to say that while in 2009 the Royal Navy had a total of 197 helicopters (42 x Merlin HM1, 40 x Sea King Mk 3/5, 37 x Sea King Mk 4, 13 x Sea King Mk 7 ASaC, 62 x Lynx HM3/8) by 2019 it will have just 83 helicopters (25 x Merlin HC3/4, 30 x Merlin HM2 and 28 x Lynx Wildcat HM).
Admittedly the Royal Navy no longer undertakes the ‘Search and Rescue’ role as this together with the similar role effected by the Royal Air Force for which in respect of the Royal Navy all 40 x Sea King Mk 3/5 aircraft were required, but it does emphasise the dramatic reduction on overall Royal Navy rotary capability and that includes a requirement to stand up more rotary power to provide ISR/ASW capability to assist in protecting ‘Carrier Strike’.
Whilst I will make no comment here on the 60% reduction in number of smaller helicopter capability as Lynx has been replaced by less than half the number of Wildcat aircraft (RNAS wise this capability comes under the responsibility of RNAS Yeovilton which I will visit later this year) it seems to me that in order to conduct the ASaC mission effectively the Royal Navy will require additional new Merlin Helicopter rotary.
EH101 Merlin capability is truly brilliant and having personally many hours in the aircraft over the years I can vouch for its excellence. A total of 30 Merlin Mk 2 aircraft having gone through a substantial upgrading process that was known as the Merlin Capability Sustainment Plus (CSP) programme over the last few year and that was carried out by Lockheed Martin included fitting of glass cockpits. This upgrade has enabled the planned out-of-service date (OSD) to move to 2030.
Having observed the Merlin capability sustainment programme upgrade at first hand I conclude that the Royal navy has tremendous all-round day/night rotary maritime defence capability for the primary roles of anti-surface ship and submarine warfare detection. The trouble is that as I observe the increased requirement of the overall role, it is obvious that the Royal navy does not have nearly enough capacity to do the job required without significant risk.
The maintenance of ‘Continuous At Sea Deterrent’ and ensuring future ‘Continuous Carrier Strike Capability’ are uppermost in respect of Royal Navy mission planning and the ASW role in the latter area really is significant. The ASW role in respect of Task Group Protection and other existing roles already requires 9 Merlin Mk 2 aircraft and a total number of 18 trained and ready to deploy crews.
The overall concern here is that although Merlin Mk 2 ‘Forward Fleet’ predicted availability is planned to be around 25 aircraft of a total number of 30 upgraded aircraft for use on the full spectrum of ASW role, the reality is that this may well fall to between 18 and 21 aircraft in respect of availability to perform the important non-discretionary tasking. While refitting a Merlin gearbox takes only 12 days to refit the time needed for full reconditioning is between four and five months. Five years ago it was over one year. These factors, particularly given the additional requirements being placed on the Merlin HM2 ‘Forward Fleet’ for ‘Carrier Strike’ role protection appear dangerously low and in my view need to be urgently reviewed by the MOD in respect of the dangers of not having sufficient levels of equipment capability available.
Secondary roles for Merlin HM2 include Maritime Counter-Terrorism, Boarding Operations, CASEVAC, Counter Narcotics, Logistics delivery and heavy load lifting, SAR/SUBSAR and many others. Undoubtedly, Merlin capability is very well proven on operations including the recent Ebola Response role within Operation Gritrock, together with a variety of Humanitarian and support roles with NATO allies.
Retention of Suitably Qualified and Experienced Personnel (SQEP) together with the wider issue of overall retention of personnel also needs to be better highlighted. Engineering and technical capability expertise has become harder to secure in recent years and sometimes even harder to retain when you have it. It isn’t just those trades either as those operating inside the aircraft require very special training that is not easy to quickly replicate. While the majority of training for the ASW role is based on High Fidelity ASW Simulator training such is the importance of the ASW role it is clear to me that more investment needs to be put in. It is worth noting that the number of Submarines operated by 40 nations is now put at 530 and that the number of new submarines in build or intended is now at record levels.
As part of the overall Autonomous Find/Attack role, Merlin Mk 2 capability is fitted with a range of sensors including Thales electronic support measures system and the BAE Systems Blue Kestrel search radar and that combined allow Merlin HM2 to search an area of 200,000 km in a single four hour sortie. Thales provide the medium and low-frequency active dipping acoustic sonar which is known as Flash. The aircraft which is equipped with a Smiths Industries (now GE) OMI SEP 2 dual redundant digital air-flight control system and has triple redundancy in respect of having three Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM 322 engines also has DAS and Data Link although not Link 16.
It is well known that the two new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers will be the largest warships that have ever been built for the Royal Navy. They will play a vital role in UK defence, in deterrence and in promoting the nation over what is a planned life of at least 50 years. The important point in terms of overall capacity is to realise that to deploy reformed ‘carrier strike’ capability from 2021 involves a significant amount of current Royal Navy air and maritime capability and capacity being used to both protect and to supply them. These are issues that I will cover in greater detail in the weeks and months ahead.
Likewise, although I will briefly mention it here because RNAS Culdrose is actively involved across many squadrons on the base preparing for the additional carrier strike role, the SDSR 2015 defence and security review had a UK Government commitment to acquiring 48 F-35B Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II aircraft from Lockheed Martin. These first 48 aircraft are planned to be what is called the first tranche of an intended through programme life procurement by the MOD of a total 138 F35B Lightning II. The aircraft employs stealth technology that allows it to readily fly in contested airspace to significant military advantage. Lightning 11 will also be used for land-based operations flying from RAF Marham.
The UK Government plans to use the Carrier Strike role from 2021. This will involve flying a Squadron of up to 12 Lightning II jets from a carrier. To that end 617 Squadron will be the first Royal Air Force Lightning 11 squadron to be stood up at RAF Marham while 809 Naval Air Squadron will be the first Royal Navy Lightning 11 squadron.
In respect of Merlin HS2 capability capacity shortfall concerns it is worth noting also that between 2021 and 2026, the MOD will introduce the second aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales together with the second squadron of Lightning II jets. When trials and training are complete both carriers will be able to perform a range of roles, including of course, acting as helicopter carriers or transporting military forces. This will represents the full CEPP (Carrier Enabled Power Projection) capability having been achieved.
The next phase in respect of ‘Carrier Strike’ during the 2017 and 2020 period will be critical to establishing the capability. During this period the MOD will be bringing Carrier and F-35 Lightning II jets together and also Merlin complete with ‘Crowsnest’ capability, fully trained crews and the mass of supporting infrastructure, logistics, communications and surveillance equipment required. All this requires theories to be tested and for operation of all the various elements involved working together in preparation for the first deployment of Carrier Strike capability in 2021.
Be in no doubt – the Royal Navy will be ready for the standing up of full Carrier Strike capability but as it moves forward and if it is forced to carry a too heavy burden of capacity constraints, nothing can be taken for granted.
CHW (London 20th March 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785