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Royal Navy to Extend Service Life of AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin Helicopters

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Royal Navy to Extend Service Life of AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin Helicopters

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Royal Navy Merlin Mk2 helicopters on the flight deck of HMS Illustrious
Royal Navy Merlin Mk2 helicopters on the flight deck of HMS Illustrious

Leonardo Helicopters and Lockheed Martin UK have secured contracts worth £1.8 million ($2.29 million) each to assess the feasibility of keeping the Royal Navy’s AW101 Merlin fleet operational until 2040. The U.K. Ministry of Defence announced on 4 July that the contracts require both companies to conduct a comprehensive review and validation of the anticipated obsolescence issues affecting the airframes, equipment, and associated training aids of the Merlin Mk2 and Mk4/4a aircraft in the 2030+ timeframe. The goal is to extend the out-of-service date of these helicopters. Leonardo and Lockheed Martin are currently in the concept phase of the Merlin Out of Service Date Extension Programme. They expect to proceed to a detailed assessment phase early next year, leading to a formal contract.

The retirement dates for the Royal Navy’s fleet of 30 Merlin HM2 helicopters and 25 Merlin HC4/4As were initially set for 2029 and 2030, respectively. However, the 2021 defence review extended these dates to 2040. The Merlin HM2 helicopters are primarily employed in anti-submarine warfare missions and serve as airborne surveillance and control platforms for the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers through the Crowsnest modification. On the other hand, the HC4/4As are utilized as troop transports by the Commando Helicopter Force. Both helicopter variants have undergone significant modifications in recent years, upgrading them from their previous HM1 and HC3/3A standards. Leonardo Helicopters completed the delivery of the final HC4 rotorcraft in January of this year.

Royal Navy Leonardo AW101 Mk4/4a Merlin Helicopter
Royal Navy Leonardo AW101 Mk4/4a Merlin Helicopter

Although all the Merlins were manufactured by Leonardo Helicopters in Yeovil, the upgrade work was divided between the two companies. Leonardo was responsible for HC4 conversion activities, while Lockheed served as the prime contractor for the HM2 project. Given that each company possesses the specific expertise, tools, equipment, and access to technical drawings, publications, and manufacturing data for their respective helicopters, contracts were required with both Leonardo Helicopters and Lockheed Martin to address future obsolescence challenges.The procurement strategy involves establishing parallel single-source contracts with Leonardo Helicopters and Lockheed Martin, aiming to mitigate coordination risks observed in previous projects through the establishment of a Joint Project Office, as stated in the contract notification.

The AgustaWestland AW101 is a medium-lift helicopter in military and civil use. First flown in 1987, it was developed by a joint venture between Westland Helicopters in the United Kingdom and Agusta in Italy in response to national requirements for a modern naval utility helicopter. Several operators, including the armed forces of Britain, Denmark, and Portugal, use the name Merlin for their AW101 aircraft. It is manufactured at factories in Yeovil, England, and Vergiate, Italy. Licensed assembly work has also taken place in Japan and the United States. In 2000, it merged with Italian helicopter manufacturer Agusta to form AgustaWestland, leading to the type’s current designation. In 2016, AgustaWestland merged into Leonardo, where it became the company’s helicopters division under the Leonardo Helicopters brand.

Royal Navy Leonardo AW101 Mk4/4a Merlin Helicopter
Royal Navy Leonardo AW101 Mk4/4a Merlin Helicopter

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