The Royal Navy’s enhanced Merlin Mk2 helicopters with powerful radars have joined the UK’s flagship for her autumn deployment. Two Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) helicopters, delivered through the Crowsnest programme, have been significantly upgraded with new software ahead of joining HMS Queen Elizabeth. The UK flagship left Portsmouth to head north, leading a task group of partner nations and exercising her F-35 Lightning stealth fighters and Merlin helicopters. The ASaC aircraft use their radars, lowered underneath the fuselage in a domed bag – which earns them the nickname ‘Baggers’ in the rest of the rest of the Navy – to look ‘over the horizon’.
Commander Aidan Riley, who commands the Merlin Helicopter Force said, “The system had receivedconsiderable capability enhancements since Crowsnest debuted on the carrier’s maiden deployment to the Pacific in 2021.The deployment of this year’s carrier strike group is a significant milestone for our ASaC capability. The helicopters and their crews are an integral part of Merlin Helicopter Force alongside our trusted and hugely experienced antisubmarine warfare experts.”
The Royal Navy’s Merlin Mk2 helicopters highly-trained crews look for possible air and surface threats – and can be used to coordinate defence and strike operations. Each Merlin has a crew of three – one pilot and two observers (the tactical operators) from 820 Naval Air Squadron, which is based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall. They are embarked alongside the ship’s complement of submarine hunting Merlins and anti-surface warfare Wildcat helicopters.
Merlin Mk2 entered service in 2014 as an upgrade for the original 1990’s Mk1 naval version. The Merlin Capability Sustainment Programme provided 30 Mk2s with a redesigned cockpit and aircraft management computer system. Enhancements to the RADAR and sonar systems mean the Merlin continues to be the world’s most potent sub hunting helicopter. Beyond searching for submarines the helicopter is capable of much more, including round-the-clock maritime patrol and interdiction – armed with Sting-Ray Torpedoes, Mk11 Depth Charges and the M3m .50 Calibre Machine Gun; troop ferrying, casualty evacuation, medium lift under-slung loads and other contingency tasks.