Navy's new Merlins up for sub-hunting
The Royal Navy’s new submarine-hunting helicopters will face their greatest test yet when they head into the Atlantic this June in the biggest exercise of its kind this century.
Probably not since the days of the Cold War have so many Royal Navy helicopters been sent to sea on an aircraft carrier for the purpose of hunting submarines as on Exercise Deep Blue in the Western Approaches.
Nine Merlins from RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall will join HMS Illustrious to practise skills which were once the mainstay of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier operations at the height of the tensions with the Soviet Union.
It’s the first time the latest version of the Merlin – the Mk2 – has been tested en masse.
After more than a decade on the front line, the Merlin fleet – based at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall – is in the midst of a £750m revamp which will help to keep them at the forefront of naval warfare until the end of the 2020s.
Two of the four Merlin squadrons have already been converted to the improved helicopter – which looks the same outwardly, but inside is a completely new box of tricks – including the first front-line unit, 820 Naval Air Squadron.
It will spearhead Deep Blue, with eight new Mk2s due to join the Portsmouth-based carrier, plus one Mk1 – the largest concentration of submarine-hunting helicopters in recent memory, and the largest ever concentration of Merlins at sea.
Nine Merlins on one carrier is a sight no-one has seen – and one no-one involved will ever forget,” said Cdr Ben Franklin, Commander of the Royal Navy’s Maritime Merlin Force.
“We’re looking forward to it big time – the younger guys especially. They’ve heard all the stories about what we did back in the days of the Cold War because, if the balloon goes up, this is what we do.”
A couple of next-generation Merlins from 820 NAS have just returned from a NATO anti-submarine exercise off Norway, Dynamic Mongoose, where they clocked up 60 hours in the skies over the North Sea.
For the first time a Mk2 tracked a boat using both its active ‘dipping sonar’, lowered into the Atlantic to look for boats, and active sonobuoys – which are dropped into the water to do the same.
Dynamic Mongoose was a ‘toe in the water’. Deep Blue is on a far grander scale.
For three Merlins to hunt submarines continuously around the clock – using either their dipping sonar, or passive sonobuoys (‘underwater ears’) listening for them – nine helicopters are needed, hence the size of the operation.
It will also demand the efforts of around 200 personnel, including 18 aircrew – two pilots, one observer and one aircrewman each.
After a week and a half’s training around the UK by day and night, Illustrious and her helicopters will move out into the expanse of the Atlantic for Deep Blue itself, which reaches its climax in mid to late June.