The venerable Sea King ASac Mk7′s have been in the news quite a bit recently, especially given their significant contribution to operations in Afghanistan but the Crows Nest project which seeks to define a replacement has yet to step out into much of the public eye, it being officially a ‘non programme’ at the moment.
Given the Sea King Out of Service Date is 2016 there is a degree of urgency although given that we are currently enjoying a naval fixed wing aviation ‘capability holiday’ some might say given the rapidly maturing Type 45 and UAV technologies, coupled with a gap between 2016 and the introduction of carrier strike in the 2020′s there is less of a rush.
It surely would not be in any way ideal to expose the joint force to yet another gap in capabilities, especially given the excellent service that the Mk7′s have given.
A number of proposals have emerged, including buying a number E2′s and operating them as an enlarged joint fleet, replacing the E3 Sentry in due course, operating a joint UK/French E2 force, transferring the Mk7 equipment into a V22 and transfering the same equipment into a Merlin. Others have seen the Merlinn HM.1 airframes that are not included in the HM.2 upgrade programme as ideal candidates for this transfer but the proposal drawings seen so require a rear ramp, something the HM.1 does not have.
Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems have recently proposed another route, namely using the new HM.2 airframes and fitting them as needed with a modular radar pod called the Vigilance Pod.
The Vigilance Pod contains a Northrop Grumman AN/APG 81
Aviation International reported;
The sensor pod can be mounted on a hardpoint or a rigid frame and contains the radar antenna, processor and power supply, an IFF interrogator, GPS/INS, ESM sensors and its own cooling system. Two of them carried on either side of the platform can provide 360-degree coverage.
Up to four associated operator consoles are fitted inside the platform, running a tactical mission system that Lockheed Martin UK has already developed for the UK Royal Navy Merlin Mk2 helicopter. A system interface panel on the console connects to platform avionics, although Vigilance can be operated in an entirely self-contained mode. Thanks to the capability and flexibility of the fourth-generation active electronically scanned array (AESA), missions can include airborne early warning and control, anti-surface warfare, battlefield surveillance and search-and-rescue.
Lockheed Martin UK officials said that Vigilance is a company-funded initiative derived from a 2009-10 study of how the Merlin helicopter could be adapted to replace the Royal Navy’s aging Sea King airborne surveillance and control helicopters. The UK Ministry of Defence has yet to proceed with this requirement, but in the meantime Lockheed Martin has teamed with Northrop Grumman and developed a prototype Vigilance pod that has already been ground-tested at Northrop Grumman’s Baltimore facility. Flight tests will take place in the UK early next year on a helicopter
Where have we seen the APG81 before?
Of course, it’s the same system as fitted to the F35, which would of course makes for an interesting discussion on commonality, integration within the same battlespace, data linking and utilsing other aircraft.
With relentless pressure on MoD budgets and the obvious need to do more with less I wonder if this option has a very good chance of adoption. Training and airframe availability of course mean that it is far from ideal but that is not quite the point, it might be good enough and at an overall price that is affordable.
With newer surface radars and possible future unmanned systems (land or sea launched) this might be a reasonable way of delivering capability without taking much needed resource from other areas.
Seems like a very sensible solution