The Merlin helicopter fleet has clocked up 200,000 flying hours, say the Royal Navy.

“It’s a battlefield helicopter pilot’s dream to be able to fly such an awesome and cutting edge machine,” said Lieutenant Tom Lennon of 845 Naval Air Squadron.

“Commando Merlin is a game-changer for the Commando Helicopter Force. As front-line aircrew, our ability to operate and interact with the aircraft has vastly increased thanks to major cockpit and avionic upgrades. This epic aircraft’s immense capability means we can not only take the fight directly to the enemy, but provide a life-saving combat rescue capability in his own back yard.”

According to a news release:

“In four different versions – chiefly split between maritime patrol/submarine hunter and battlefield support – the Merlin fleet has flown the equivalent of 1,190 weeks or just shy of 23 years in the hands of the Fleet Air Arm and RAF.

The Fleet Air Arm got its hands on the first version of the helicopter in 1997, brought it into the service three years later and have been operating it ever since from frigates, carriers and assault ships, using the Merlin for everything from moving people and kit around and rescue missions to the painstaking task of submarine hunting – usually hand-in-hand with a Type 23 frigate.

And since 2014, naval air and ground crew have been turning the RAF’s battlefield Merlins into Commando Helicopter Force Merlins, replacing the trusty Sea King as the wings of the Royal Marines.”

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Time to perhaps replace some of the old ones with new ones? And perhaps to add a few air frames to the inventory?



No hope


Merlin is a great success story and brilliant product, the UK should buy more, especially given its capabilities and price point.

I really do think this is one thing the MOD got right, may be an unfashionable view, but it really is a great piece of equipment for circa £20m.

Is the Merlin going to become the new Sea King and serve for almost 50 years?

Nick C

Bearing in mind that there are only going to be 25 of the Mk 4’s in the CHF, that probably means that no more than half, given training and maintenance needs, will actually be fully operational and able to be deployed as necessary. Given that the QE or POW will need a minimum of 12 if deploying as a fully tooled up LPH, full commando embarked etc, it doesn’t leave any spare to embark on the LPD’s, the Bays or any RFA’s that might need them. Also when you consider that we only have 30 to perform ASW and AEW,… Read more »

There simply isn’t the funding lines available to buy more merlins, we could, but it would at the expense of another equipment program. And while greater numbers are always desirable, we have a very capable helicopter force, quality over quantity.

Quality over quantity is all well and good until your airframes are either lost in combat or crash due to technical issues or pilot error. The fact remains that the FAA currently has 83 helicopters, which, (even if you could provide 100 per cent availability in a combat situation – practically impossible), would mean that most airframes would be deployed from an RN or RFA vessel, leaving very little room for attrition. Chinook is a good platform, hell, a fantastic capability to have. But it’s still, in my mind, no substitute for navalised helicopters – such as Merlin and Wildcat.… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

Spot on Lusty.

Numbers. Numbers. Numbers.

Steve R

I’m fine with that. Do it at the expense of Dreadnought. I can’t see how it can cost 40 billion for 4 subs and their missiles; other, cheaper options should be considered, then use the savings to boost numbers of other items.

Daniele Mandelli

Missiles not part of that total I think Steve. We are procuring new subs not missiles. The 40 billion was for all submarines, be it Astute or Dreadnaught. I’d also guess a chunk of that goes to AWE Aldermaston and AWE Burghfield. and other supporting infrastructure too. But agree, most of that would be on Dreadnaught and quite mind boggling how the costs come to that. On cheaper alternatives for me it’s Trident or nothing. Cruise missiles as some suggest are not a deterrent. They can be shot down. Same with planes carrying free fall bombs or a missile. Or… Read more »

Steve R

Oh I fully agree with Trident, the cheaper alternative I mentioned was meant as a cheaper alternative to Dreadnought. My personal preference would be for 4 new subs based off the Astute design but made larger. As they’re modular in design, a ballistic missile module would then be incorporated into it. Use Astute technology and design to produce a far cheaper nuclear deterrent. Even if it doubled the cost of the subs to almost 3 billion thats still a saving of around £28 billion. Let’s say R&D costs for the new version are 3billion. Still leaves us with £25 billion… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

Understood mate.

Meirion X

Stave R# A much bigger hulled Astute to fit Trident D5, will cost a lot more then £3 billion, it would need to be completely redesigned!
A cheaper option would be an Astute with a VLS module inserted in the middle, armed with a medium range missile like Trident C4, with a range of 4000 miles.

Glass Half Full

You don’t see Chinook embarked in a LPH role?

Er, yes you do. The Chinnys will be embarking later this year.

I don’t think Glass meant it in that way, more posting a question to the OP.

Glass Half Full

Correct. I could/should have been more explicit but the point was that Nick C was totally ignoring the Chinook capability. I couldn’t think of a reason why he would do so, hence the question.


If we won’t to free up Merlin’s then the best way is to invest in a drone based AEW sensor system like V247 to replace Crowsnest. Fitting wildcat with dipping sonar would also be a good addition to support Merlin HM2 fleet.

With 25 HC4 commando carriers as well as 60 Chinooks in support we have significantly more aviation assets than platforms to launch them from if needed. Lots of better things to spend money on than more Merlin’s.

Daniele Mandelli

Interesting they mentioned about CSAR role now that role is being explored by the RM. The RAF Reg I believe dallied with it years back when Merlin was with 28 and 78 Sqns RAF. Our helis don’t have any AAR capability do they? So not so easy to get to an enemies “backyard” That Peter was robbed to pay Paul in getting these is always ignored in these Mod cleared statements. And yes I have read here the RAF didn’t like them. Fact remains Sea King Commando HC4, of which I recall we had 35, in 845, 846, 848 NAS,… Read more »

If you want another stark reality:

83 Lynx were purchased for the RN, 60 in the first batch, 23 in the second. 4 airframes from the first batch were lost onboard ships in the Falklands, but as of 2009, we still had 62 airframes.

62 airframes replaced by just 28 Wildcats. It hardly leaves us enough room to deploy 2 on each large escort (T45 can carry 2 Wildcats in place of one Merlin), whilst accounting for attrition and retaining our commitments elsewhere in the world.

Numbers, numbers, numbers!

Daniele Mandelli

Sadly Lusy, I was well aware of that statistic.

Try that with the combined Lynx and Gazelle fleet in the army too.

captain P Wash.

Lusty, These Drastic Reductions are borderline Criminal to my Mind.

Daniele Mandelli

As I see it we have three major needs ( not in any order of priority)around the rotor fleet: 1) retaining sovereign capability (that’s the westlands factory and workforce), including investing to make it a viable net provider of revenue. 2) replacing puma and securing appropriate medium lift for the army 3) increasing to an appropriate level our navilised rotor assets that have an ASW/surface warfare utility. To my mind this is not outside the realms the bloody easy to do for the 5/6 richest nation in the world. Ideas: 1) Westlands has always been hampered by the MOD requirement… Read more »

Glass Half Full

I’ve thought for a while that the longer term intent might be to migrate the Army’s Wildcat to RN use, but probably a decade away to align with increasing surface fleet numbers of T31 and MCMV replacement that would all support a hangered helicopter. However, that would require the army to get a scout replacement. The US got rid of their Kiowa scouts in favour of using Apache but seem to be regretting that, so I’m not sure what the answer will be for the UK if the Wildcats go to the RN? Perhaps timing will work out based on… Read more »

R Cummings

The US Army is not happy with the Apache in the reconnaissance role, hence looking for a smaller, faster scout heli instead. They have 24 front-line combat recon helis is each of their Combat Aviation Brigades. The current UK equivalent is the Wildcat, which is an ideal combat recon heli, if a bit on the large and expensive side for the role. They are needed in the battlefield helicopter role, the problem is the usual one of a severe lack of numbers. For the 6-brigade force envisaged, we’d need an overall force of about 88 or, if we only ever… Read more »

Glass Half Full

The AW-149, or your AW-150 variant, wouldn’t be bad choices and might still be the best choices for the UK after considering results from the US FVL program. But with candidates for the FVL light- and medium-lift already flying, albeit in prototype form, it seems wiser to see how those progress over the next few years, since these are not incremental/evolutionary capability enhancements.

While there are gaps between what we have and what we’d like to have, we also have to balance against rushing decisions unnecessarily in relation to realistic current and near term threats in my view.

Glass Half Full

Just to add this news item into the discussion regrading UK future medium lift and possible decisions based on progress of the US Future Vertical Lift program.


I always thought the AW149 suffered from bad looks, it also looks to flimsy compared to a Blackhawk. If we are playing out fantasy’s on helicopters I would have liked to see the UK repurchase Westland form Leonardo, then commission a two engine helicopter similar to the NH90 that could have eventually replaced Merlin, Wildcat and Puma. A totally fleet size of 150 or so that could then have opened it up to export. I would rather see a purchase of a tilt rotor such as V280 to replace the Puma with wildcat filling in the gaps. A titl rotor… Read more »


I know what you mean about looks. I’m not sure 50 medium lift rotors to replace puma is fantasy fleet, it’s pretty much what we need. Just because the government will not fund appropriate and needed equipment does not make it fantasy. It’s more fantasy to not fund what is needed and try to pretend you can do without.


I hope the UK can afford some new AW101 Merlins in the mid 2020s. If so, it might allow the new GE T901 engine to be used. It is claimed to reduce fuel consumption by 25% & increase service life 20%.

There are many comments about putting dipping sonar into the Wildcat. This is not a realistic option, there is a significant amount of work, weight and space required which would adversely affect the aircraft’s designed role performance. One needs an extensive amount of avionics, cabling, sonar winch and additional power generation not to mention fitting an additional work station. This would reduce weapon load, fuel load and certainly effectiveness. Presently spare capacity is earmarked for the light & heavy weight ASM system. ASW will be the sole domain of the Merlin fleet.


Yes but it’s doable and is a solution to a big question on how can the tiny Merlin fleet do it all. With Wildcat there is no design or testing need to instal the kit as that’s all been done, it’s more a case of taking some airframes and doing the deed, yes there will be trade offs but I’m not talking about the whole fleet, just 12 of the army wildcats, one squadron specifically tasked to provide ASW small ship deployments to our GP frigates and AAW destroyers. ASW is the domain of our merlin fleet but now so… Read more »

Yes, cost is always king regardless of the level of capability. Years ago when the Sea King Mk5 came on the scene there was a small research project to consider using the mk5 as a specialised passive ASW helicopter by removing the 195 dipping sonar and relying on the sono bouy Lapads suite. The idea was to install the 195 in lynx mk2. It was quickly found to be unrealistic and the Lynx couldn’t carry any weapons due to all up weight being exceeded. However the biggest issue was the requirement to rewire and completely change the fuel tanks to… Read more »

Glass Half Full

I suspect the reason some are suggesting dipping sonar for Wildcat is that 8 Wildcat were built for the ROK navy that incorporate it. As shown in the linked article Wildcat can also carry 1-2 torpedoes and sonobouys.

The article also points out that the same aircraft can be armed with Spike NLOS, although i am sure that supporting dipping sonar would certainly compromise the weapons load out on an RN Wildcat. I have no idea what it would take to convert to support dipping sonar but it is certainly possible.

It is classic sales pitch information, it can take individual equipment fits, but cannot operate with the combination fitted. When the AEW conversion for the Sea King mk2 first appeared it was hoped that the AEW kit could be swapped between aircraft, the fitment was on a floating palate, the ASW kit being removed, however it was found to be far more difficult and time consuming to remove, so much so the aircraft became dedicated AEW. (824 D flt). Probably what will happen to Merlin Crowsnest. the same would affect Wildcat if fitted for ASW, we would end up with… Read more »

Glass Half Full

Hello Basil, I assume you are responding to my comment? From the article I linked, the ROK Wildcats in ASW mode with Thales Flash dipping sonar support the ASW mission with two Blue Shark torpedoes (280kg each) for 1hr+ or with a single torpedo for 2hrs+. The UK’s Sting Ray is lighter at 267kg each. If the torpedoes aren’t fitted, then purely from a weight perspective, the Wildcat could support 4 Sea Venom (at 110kg each) or 20 Martlet (at 13kg each), i.e. the standard max load out quoted for Wildcat for ASuW operation. Now loading the Wildcat like that… Read more »


Slightly off thread, but I have been wondering if the RN could do with a modern version of Engadine. That was an RFA helicopter training ship of about 8000 tons, capable of carrying 4 Wessex/Sea King/Lynx. A modern version would be a HMS rather than a RFA, as it would be to be armed at the pointy end, with a 127mm gun & SeaCeptor. (No large escort fleet to protect it now). The blunt end would be a pure Engadine copy, so a hangar for 2 Merlin & 2 Wildcat + a helideck big enough for a Merlin & a… Read more »


Flightglobal says the MoD has a new study to look at high speed helicopters. Looking at a Puma/Merlin replacement. Also at future Chinook numbers. Aiming at mid 2020s.

R Cummings

I have three reservations about waiting around for this next generation of US helicopters, which won’t be available to us for 9 or 10 years and that’s assuming no big design/production hiccups. 1) The tilt-rotor offering is going to be vastly more expensive than we can afford, like the Osprey is now. We baulk at buying more Wildcats at £25m, no way are we going to find 2 or 3 times that for super-duper new US helis 2) We need a steady conveyor belt of new kit, whether ships, aircraft, armoured vehicles or helicopters, just to replace older and obsolescent… Read more »


The HC4 Merlins are Plumbed for AAR and there is pictures out there. RAF Reg and 28Sqn were told in no uncertain terms that CSAR was the remit of SF.
Telic “blackhole” money pit put an end to it also.

R Cummings

Another point I wondered about is, the new US medium utility heli is going to have a top speed of over 300 mph and a vastly increased ferry range. All very good and no doubt reflected in what will be a big price tag. But what would we need these capabilities for realistically? I could see a case for a small flight of Special Forces ones, at a pinch. The existing Merlins are more than capable of lifting 3 Cdo Bde to any likely destination, as are the Chinooks with 16 Air Assault Bde. 3 Division’s helis would operate at… Read more »