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.”

45 COMMENTS

  1. 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.

    • Nope, It’s still up there as the best medium lift rotor out there ( also probably the most expensive, but then it’s very bloody big).

  2. 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, and the need for a full squadron in the carrier, plus those deployed in the ASW frigates and it is glaringly obvious that the existing aircraft and crews are stretched too thin. However, getting any one of the cloth eared in Westminster to get behind a new buy will probably be impossible.
    On another subject, I have just seen that the French have ordered 4 new tanker/stores auxiliaries from St Nazaire, to an Italian design. None of this nonsense of putting it out to international tender, sole source in country. So much for EU rules. Yours, cynically!

    • 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. It serves to augment out capability, particularly that of the ‘Commando Merlins’, but we need additional ASW airframes, and dedicated ASaC platforms. Few extra Wildcats with dipping sonar would be a welcome addition too.

        Budgets are the one thing in the way, but if the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq, and Afghanistan have taught us one thing, it’s that helicopters -and numbers- are crucial.

      • 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.

        • 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 they are destroyed on the ground.

          Trident works as it is lost in the ocean somewhere and can not be targeted. I read Soviet subs had tried and failed to follow a Vanguard.

          Even with the ABM systems around Moscow multiple MIRV will get through.

          • 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 saved. That could increase the F35 order to 200 planes, buy all 13 Type 26s originally planned plus the T31s, 2-3 more Astute attack subs, with perhaps enough change to build a few more Typhoons.

          • 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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, was replaced by in service assets taken from the RAF when originally they were to be replaced by new helis under the SABR – Support Amphibious Battlefield Rotorcraft Programme. Until that budget was cut by dear old Gordon Brown.

    As above posters say numbers are vital. And they are forever dwindling, no matter how good Merlin may be.

    So Chinooks may be needed as Glass mentioned.

    Are the new ones being ordered from Boeing marinised?
    Because otherwise how can just a dozen available Merlin lift the RM?

    • 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!

  5. 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 for bespoke expensive as hell rotor solutions. It’s production lines are all top end MOD focused (merlin and Wildcat), these will always be a niche rotor market. So it does not have a really market friendly medium rotor. If our sovereign capability does not get this it will die “end of, no question”. Luckily we will need a new medium rotor, this can be off the shelf. Leonardos have offered to move to whole AW149 production line from Italy to the UK as an incentive to take this as our next medium lift rotor. It’s off the shelf, already has one overseas order and is brand new and out performs Blackhawk in every way ( the US are considering an americansided version as their next medium lift).
    2) The wild cat has aways been an odd fit for the army, they got it more beacuse the navy needed it than they needed it (It only carriers four/five in the back and the army guys I’ve talked to consider it to small) now we know we are keeping Apache, the army really has no need for the undersized, can’t take the right number of troops, but is armed to the teeth and can outfly any other rotor in the sky Wildcat. What they could do with is even more proper medium lift rotors, AKA give em more AW149s to replace the ill fitting wildcats. The army would then have a single medium lift rotor fleet of about 50, that can carry 12 fully loaded troopers 500 miles. Timescales could be 30ish Now to replace Wildcat and 20ish to replace puma in 2025. Only issue other than money is RAF and Army may have a pissing match over who operates them. Personally I think medium lift should be the army but……
    3) give all the 34 wildcats the army has to the navy and commando helicopter force, modify the ones going to the navy with dipping sonar.
    This could give the commando helicopter force about anothe 20 rotors, each of which is able to act in a mini gunship role and go where, the quit frankly huge merlin cannot.
    You could then have an extra 12 dipping sonar navy wildcats that could be paired with the type to give it’s ASW role a bit more meaning but still keep it Lowend. All the merlin MK2s could then be focused on deployment on the carriers and type25 frigates which is we’re they need to be.

    That would seem to gave all the services what they need and secure our sovereign capability ( making a few more high end jobs and supporting the tax base) all for the cost of 50 new medium rotors the bulk of which we are going to need to order anyway for delivery in 2025 (Pumas, rusting out of service date).

    • 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 the following.

      On the medium lift capability perhaps MoD are waiting to consider options on the outcome of the US Future Vertical Lift program, which is intended to replace UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, CH-47 Chinook, and OH-58 Kiowa helicopters. I don’t see UK MoD replacing Apache or Chinook for a long time, but for medium lift the V-280 Valor and SB-1 Defiant seem to be step changes in capability and also supposedly focused on affordability too (but this is US MIC so take that with a pinch of salt!) FVL-Light might provide the Wildcat Scout replacement and might align with replacement a decade or so from now.

      Probably a procurement “bridge too far”, given the likely increased costs, but Westlands might then build V-280 under license and become the manufacturing center for Leonardo’s AW609 for commercial markets, assuming one develops. However the priority should be on getting the right tool for the Army’s job, rather than on industrial manufacturing support programs.

      • 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 plan to deploy 3 bdes at the same time, as seems to be the current hopeless vision, then 51. We have just 34, so are not really at the races and just talk a lot without much to back it up. All this to say, they are needed by Army Air Cprps, none to spare for the RN. It really needs a further buy of 16 minimum for the Army and whatever the RN needs but don’t hold your breath, Williamson has learned early that ‘Britain is great again’ wuffle does not require any actual hardware, the public sleep easily in their beds.

        An even bigger gap in the battlefield helicopter offering is the medium utility heli, primarily in the air assault role. The US heli bde has 30 front-line in this role and another 28 for command, EW and medivac, so a total of 95 to support three bdes. We have just half that number – 25 Merln HC4s and 23 old Pumas – to support twice as many bdes!

        We double-count the Chinooks in this role, there wouldn’t be many available for air assault or medivac and none for command/EW.

        The 3-enfine Merlin is on the big and expensive side for the army’s medium utility role, the smaller, cheaper Black Hawk or AW-149 can do the job fine. I would go for the AW-149, give it a cabin plug to extend the cabin to seat 18, half a platoon, a more powerful engine, call it the 150 and build it at Westland. The combat-laden troops capacity is important, it needs 3 Black Hawks to lift a platoon, or one crowded Merlin, but the latter puts a lot of eggs in one basket on a hot battlefield. As 18-seater AW-149 would cut the numbers required v Black Hawk and halve the risk v Merlin.

        We really need 60+ of them to augment the Merlin HC4s and replace the Pumas in the next few years. Sadly, fat chance under the current regime I’d think.

        • 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.

  6. 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 could also allow us to replace the last of the C130 J aircraft giving big savings.

    • 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.

  7. 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%.

  8. 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 is AEW that a lot of ask on a small fleet of cabs.

      It would give our planners a far better toolbox for planning deployments if they had a squadron of ASW wildcats to add to the mix, rembering the type 25/45 fleets can/will be able to manage a pair of cabs on deployment.

      Will not happen as it’s a cost.

  9. 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 fit the required avionics. Sensibly the project rejected the wholevidea and we stayed with a dual active dipping and passive mk5 and a strike Lynx. Today the ASW equipment is far larger in area and heavier in weight than the 195 equipment and as such exactly the same issues would affect any Wildcat conversion. I use the word “conversion” as that is what it would be: hole cut in cabin floor, new circular fuel tanks, rewire, new c of g hence different flight parameters the list goes on. A final point is that the dipping sonar is best used in conjunction with passive sonobouys, so additional stowage required for them. All this goes some way to explain why Merlin is so large. Wildcat with dipping sonar is a nice thought in paper, however not realistic, we should concentrate on additional Merlin or more VDS or towed array for surface ships. A containerised TA fitment for quiet ships would be far more effective.

  10. 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 even less airframes ASM / strike capable.

    • 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 while also still carrying the ASW sonar equipment might not be desirable for all ASuW roles, but it doesn’t preclude a lighter load out while still carrying all installed sonar equipment, i.e. without removing ASW equipment.

  11. 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 Wildcat to use simultaneously. Such a deck should be big enough for a visiting Chinook or CH-53K.

  12. 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.

    • 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 stuff and keep us up to date, which means we need a rolling procurement programme for each. The maximum we can afford on the current battlefield helicopter budget 8 helis a year, less if they’re expensive Chibooks; over 30 years, that means we can just about keep the shrunken fleet in being. Delaying purchase to wait for US helicopters almost certainly means that the MOD will whizz the money off into some other programme and we will get further cuts to the fleet presented as a no-choice fait accomplit.

      3) Times reporting yesterday that, for the first time in hundreds of years, UK is going to be a net importer of defence equipment this year or next – hardly surprising, as there is not enough domestic defence work to keep the yards and factories going and we keep selling them off to more successful competitors. By all means import equipment where it is better or cheaper or fills a niche we don’t do, but we can make a blinking helicopter, via Leonardo, and our offerings are pretty good, let us not screw up what is left of another UK manufacturer by buying in from the USA.

  13. 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.

  14. 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 the pointy end of the battlefield, so Puma/Merlin/AW-149 range and speed are more than adequate.

    I am sure the forces would far rather have an adequate number of capable airframes at an affordable price than an inevitably limited number of fancy, costly, over-specified ones.

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