Royal Navy CROWSNEST Decision


In what I think is the first post-election major project announcement the MoD have today confirmed that an updated Thales Cerberus system has been selected for the CROWSNEST requirement that will deliver an airborne surveillance system to protect the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers.

The Crowsnest project will act as the Royal Navy’s eyes and ears for its next generation carriers, giving long range air, maritime and land detection, as well as the capability to track potential threats. Crowsnest will also be able to support wider fleet and land operations, replacing the Sea King helicopter’s Airborne Surveillance and Control capability that has been deployed on regular operations since 1982.

Lockheed Martin UK will now conclude the project’s £27 million assessment phase, expected in 2016, supported by Thales and AgustaWestland, the manufacturer of the Merlin helicopter onto which the system will be able to be fitted.

Once a decision has been taken to proceed into the manufacture phase, it is expected that around 300 jobs will be sustained across these companies in Crawley, Havant and Yeovil.

It is important to understand that it is only the Assessment Phase that was £27m, more invoices will follow.

A few things are clear and a few things are not;

  • Lockheed Martin lost, despite them being the prime contractor
  • It is a repacked and updated system, not the shiny new Elta EL/M 2052 active electronically scanned radar offered by LM, to LM!
  • It is a role fit system for the existing 30 Merlin HM2 helicopters
  • No news on how many role fit kits will be provided under the demonstration and manufacture phase, that is a future decision although 10 is the current aspiration

I actually think is a sensible decision, low risk and with an existing training and logistic support pipeline.

No doubt there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth about not using unconverted HM.1 airframes or buying new, but that misses the point of affordability. The Royal Navy will get an updated system into service that is already highly regarded and cover the out of service date for the Sea King ASaC Mk7’s.

CROWSNEST goes back many years, originally starting out as the Future Organic Airborne Early Warning (FOAEW) in 2001 which saw study contracts awarded to BAE/Northrop Grumman and Thales. The studies took the baseline as, funnily enough, a Merlin with the equipment transferred from the existing Sea Kings, after which other options such as an E-2C Hawkeye, aerostat and v22 were evaluated. The V22 included options for the Ericsson Erieye, Thales Searchwater and one that used a conformal antenna.

A July 2000 parliamentary answer confirmed the particulars;

We plan to acquire a Future Organic Airborne Early Warning (FOAEW) system to replace the capability currently provided by Sea King airborne early warning helicopters. FOAEW will operate from the Future Aircraft Carrier (CVF) and complement the deployment of the Future Carrier Borne Aircraft (FCBA). It will mount powerful radar systems to provide wide sensor coverage against both air and surface threats, and command and control for operations by the carrier air group. Expressions of interest for participation in the programme were sought from industry in February 2000. The planned in-service date for FOAEW is 2012.

There are 13 Sea King Airborne Early Warning helicopters in service. Of these, nine are operationally available, with the remainder undergoing major maintenance programmes and a capability upgrade. Ten of the airframes were first delivered to the Royal Navy between 1969 and 1971 and converted to the Airborne Early Warning variant between 1982 and 1987. The other three airframes first entered Service as in between 1985 and 1986, being converted during 1997 and 1998.

BAE was confirmed in the role of ‘Prime Contactor’


V22 AEW 4

In 2001-2002, all 13 Sea Kings AEW Mk2’s received a comprehensive upgrade to the Mk7 configuration that included the new Searchwater 2000, new INS/GPS, Link 16/JTIDS, IFF and most importantly, an operator console and interface designed by the Royal Navy Mk2 operators.

Royal Navy Sea King ASaC Mk7 AEW Helicopter
Royal Navy Sea King ASaC Mk7 AEW Helicopter

Future Organic Airborne Early Warning (FOAEW) evolved to the Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control (MASC) programme and in April 2002 the very same Northrop Grumman and Thales received another contract, for Phase II.

The formal start of the assessment phase for Maritime Airborne Surveillance and Control (MASC) started in 2005. By the following year, another three study contracts had been awarded, one each to Lockheed Martin, Thales and Agusta Westland. MASC formed part of the Carrier Strike triad; the others being CVF and JCA. Work continued on looking at various options and in 2007 the V22 AEW option resurfaced with the amusingly named TOSS, Tactical Organic Sensor System (seriously, who makes these names up!)

V22 AEW 3

V22 AEW 2

The Thales solution looked at a system that would be mounted in a ramp equipped Merlin using a roll on roll off pallet, as images below show.




Looking at the various National Audit Office Major Projects reports from the period it looks like about £10m was spent on the Assessment Phase and various studies on top of what was spent for Future Organic Airborne Early Warning (FOAEW), which is much harder to track down.

In time honoured tradition, just as FOAEW had morphed into MASC, MASC became CROWSNEST. This is a common tactic by the MoD and used to rebaseline spending on assessment phases that produce nothing. This is a significant weakness in NAO reporting, when the MoD renames a programme, as it often does, the slate is wiped clean and any costs tends to get ‘lost’ in previous reports, thus failing to highlight the true cost of the programme.

The key difference between MASC and CROWSNEST is that CROWSNEST dispensed with any notions of platforms other than Merlinrom the National Audit Office;

From the National Audit Office;

The requirement for an Airborne Surveillance and Control capability emerged from the need to provide an organic long range airborne surveillance, control and early warning capability to Carrier Enabled Power Projection, Littoral Manoeuvre, and Maritime Task Groups at all scales of operation.

The CROWSNEST project is to succeed the capability currently provided by the Sea King Mk7 Airborne Surveillance and Control aircraft which has a planned Out of Service Date of September 2018, extended from 31 March 2016. The primary purpose of this capability is to provide Organic Force Protection for Maritime Task Groups and their their forward deployed Task Elements, including wide area surveillance overland and in the Littoral environment.

Following the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the CROWSNEST capability is required to be delivered as a role-fit mission system integrated into the Merlin Mk2.The

The CROWSNEST project will procure 10 role -fit mission systems, and convert all 30 Merlin Mk2 aircraft to make them “fit -to-receive” the CROWSNEST role-fit equipment.

This also confirmed an extension for the Sea Kings out to 2018 and that it would be fitted to existing Merlin HM.2’s, no extra conversions, no new HM.2’s, no extra nothing.

The Assessment Phase was to run from March 2013 to April 2016, when the main investment approval decision would be made, leaving a couple of years before the Sea Kings went out of service. If the project overshoots this then the Royal Navy will face a capability gap.  The expected and approved cost for the CROWSNEST Assessment Phase was £34m, on top of the FOAEW and MASC costs.

In their role as Merlin Mk2 Design Organisation, Lockheed Martin would be responsible for running a competition between Thales and, err, Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin had originally proposed their Vigilance solution that used a podded AESA radar, reportedly derived from the F35. Other reports had the numbers of pods at 2 and others at 4, all managed using the Cerberus mission system. In the 2 pod solution, they would be mechanically steered to increase their field of regard in order to achieve 360-degree coverage. The Lockheed Martin offering evolved to use the Elta EL/M 2052 AESA radar in side-mounted pods.

Vigilance Pod mounted on a Merlin helicopter


Thales, having fully understood the mood music, stuck with the ‘transfer and update’ theme, having already proposed the same as part of their MASC work. A couple of mounting options emerged but ultimately, the stores pylon was chosen.


Whilst there are no doubt any number of advantages to using the latest AESA technology the bottom line is that Searchwater and Cerberus are actually pretty damned good in any case and would arguably have been the cheaper, quicker and lower risk solution in comparison with the AESA option.

The Royal Navy will form them into a single squadron, 849 NAS, announced here

CROWSNEST was originally intended to enter the assessment phase in 2012 with a target in-service date of 2020 but this was accelerated in 2014 in order to coincide with the Sea King OSD, commenting on the decision, Phillip Dunne said;

Crowsnest will provide vital surveillance and intelligence to protect the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. The introduction of Crowsnest 18 months early will ensure HMS Queen Elizabeth has the full range of capabilities when it enters service. This announcement is a good example of improved financial management in MoD allowing us to respond to new requirements as they arise.

And this brings us back to today.

The decision has been made and the often described ‘low-risk, low-cost’ solution has won out

It is here where our oft-visited subject on Assessment Phase contracts come back to focus.

FOAEW looked at transferring the Sea King systems into Merlin.

MASC looked at transferring the Sea King systems into Merlin.

CROWSNEST looked at transferring the Sea King systems into Merlin.

This process has cost a conservative £40m

This is the solution selected.


Sea King systems transferred into Merlin.

Anyone who has ever done any DIY is familiar with the concept of;

Measure twice, cut once

At a fundamental level, this is exactly what the Assessment Phase is there to do, make sure that decisions are based on sound information and that money is not wasted, scarce and precious money.

But how much measuring do we really have to do to come to the conclusion we have?

Are we guilty of over measuring?

There is also a timing issue, following Main Gate the Merlin HM.2’s are going to have to be pulled back out of squadron service in order to be made ready for CROWSNEST. Now this might not be a hugely time-consuming issue (that being one of the attractions) but with better timing as a result of making sensible decisions earlier the HM.2 upgrade and CROWSNEST installation could have been carried out at the same time, thus relieving pressure on what is a very stretched fleet of specialist aircraft. One might also assume this would have been cheaper when taken in the round.

When I was looking at the FRES series and a comparison with French armoured vehicles in particular, one of the things that came out loud and clear was the French seem to be able to make sensible and obvious decisions because they simply know it is sensible and obvious i.e. they have the confidence to make that decision without the need to spend enormous sums of money on confirming what they already just know, and pointless competitions.

I think there is a lesson there.

The bottom line is the Royal Navy will have a prepackaged and updated system that makes use of existing HM.2 consoles, logistics, training and support arrangements but we have taken over a decade and over £40m to come to this decision.

Is that value for money?

Or is it something else?

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