Navy Wildcats gunning for their true potential in 2024
New weaponry and tech will help the Royal Navy's fleet of Wildcat maritime attack helicopters reach their true potential in 2024 after nearly ten years of front-line operations.
The true identity of this small, highly manoeuvrable helicopter is really only starting to reveal itself to the world as it ascends to its rightful place as a snarling maritime attack helicopter bristling with weaponry.
In its early phases of life it didn’t really reflect that, seldom did it carry anything that could sink or incapacitate an adversary’s ship or submarine.
The Wildcat has now grown its ‘teeth and claws’ with its weapon wings bristling with Martlet missiles for taking out boat swarms or small ships, Sting Ray torpedoes for hitting submarines and, soon, Sea Venom missiles able to take out larger surface targets – corvettes or frigates.
Not to mention the Wildcat can wield a .50 calibre machine gun on its door and play host to Royal Marines sniper teams capable of knocking out a drug smuggling speed boat from range.
It means Wildcat aviators are getting back to one of their main purposes… war fighting.
“Ultimately our job is to search for find and sink enemy ships if needs be,” said Lieutenant Scott Sunderland, instructor pilot with 825 Naval Air Squadron and part of the Black Cats display team who thrill audiences at air shows with their dynamic flying displays in Wildcats.
“I’ve spent most of my time with Wildcat in a period where we haven’t had any hard kill capability, but our bread and butter as a force is anti-surface warfare.
“We’ve been in this period where we haven’t had any real missiles. We were doing humanitarian aid, hurricane disaster relief, anti-drugs smuggling, counter piracy, all that sort of stuff out in the Gulf.
“We weren’t able to fulfil our primary role but now we’ve got these missiles coming online. The challenge now is readjusting our mind-set as aviators back to proper warfare.
“It absolutely is a really exciting time with these missiles. It’s going to be an absolute game changer.”
The Yeovilton-based Wildcat Maritime Force (WMF), some 400 people and 28 Wildcats under its two squadrons, are those pushing the maritime variant of the helicopter – the HMA2 – into the future.
815 Naval Air Squadron takes care of front-line operational work on Royal Navy ships around the world, while its sister 825 Naval Air Squadron’s business is training and generation.
Commander Alasdair Lang sits above the two as the WMF commander, balancing operational commitments, training, maintenance, future capability or the logistics behind it and ultimately the direction the force is going in.
The former Lynx observer – the Lynx is the Wildcat’s predecessor – allows the commanding officers of each squadron to focus on their own role while overseeing the bigger picture, ensuring what the squadrons offer keeps them at the pinnacle of UK defence.
The HMA2 variant of the helicopter has more than 40,000 flying hours under its belt since it first came into service in 2015, becoming a well-known and respected commodity on the Royal Navy’s global deployments.
The same can be said for the AH-1 variant flown by Commando Helicopter Force’s 847 Naval Air Squadron, which supports Royal Marines operations in its battlefield reconnaissance role and accumulated more than 9,000 flying hours along the way since 2014, including in the Arctic Circle where it has worked in tandem with Apache helicopters to search for and destroy ground targets.
The Wildcat has evolved and developed in its own right, but its heritage from the various generations of Lynx since the 1960s means there’s a huge amount of depth to the design and features.
“We are the end of the beginning,” explains Cdr Lang about where we’re at with the Wildcat. “The initial step was to bring in the helicopter. Now we’re bringing the weapons systems online.
“We’re pretty much at the end of that process. We know as much as we’re probably going to know about the helicopter, and its current configuration and how best to use it.
“The weapons are now really coming up to speed and so I’d look at the next few years as being almost probably the best bit for the force. A sweet spot.”
WILDCAT AND THE DRONES
The weaponry the Wildcat is gaining is one thing, but there are many different strands to the developments, including plans for aircrews to control drones from their helicopters.
That partly relates to work going on to the install the Link 16 system – a messaging network used by NATO to share information between aircraft, ships, vehicles and ground forces.
This will allow Wildcat helicopters to be well-informed on the tactical situation as they establish more of a war fighting role, but it also means that they can control uncrewed systems.
“You’ll be able to sit in the aircraft and send and receive digital messages,” explains Cdr Lang.
“Which means, for instance, if we’re in a role where we’re doing maritime strike, rather than our crews having to talk to someone about the situation, they can effectively just send all of that information digitally.
“The way that we’re developing the kind of human-machine interface for that capability means that you’ll be able to have a sort of series of set messages in it.
“The real advantage of that is if you’re controlling an uncrewed system, so a drone, for instance, you could have, say, 50 preset messages that you’ve loaded in at the start of that mission.
“It opens a whole host of activity across NATO that Wildcat can contribute to which it hasn’t been to date.”
All of this is a far cry from the Lynx of yesteryear, as you’d expect, but it’s reassuring to hear it from the man with a 26-year engineering career under his belt working first with Lynx and then bringing Wildcat to the front line.
Air Engineering Technician, Chief Petty Officer Pete Rogers, joined the navy in 1997 and worked on various models of Lynx initially, before the Lynx MK9 Alpha, which essentially was a hybrid of Lynx and Wildcat, and now Wildcat itself today.
He’s seen Wildcat through its infancy, deployed around the world – the Gulf, the Caribbean, the United States to name a few – as the Senior Maintenance Rating (SMR), engineers who burden huge responsibility as the main person responsible for keeping the aircraft primed for intensive operations throughout a deployment.
It’s people like CPO Rogers who are the backbone of the success of Wildcat.
Cdr Lang stresses Wildcat is a highly modern and capable system, but it’s pointless without “really capable and qualified crew and maintainers to operate it”.
“It’s a job of enormous responsibility – you’re effectively on your own,” CPO Rogers explains, when asked about his role as a SMR. “You’re a senior rate not an officer and being at the top of the engineering food chain is quite a lonely job.
“You’re maintaining the airworthiness of the aircraft but you’re also trying to deliver operational capability.
“Occasionally when I was away, I had moments where the gravity of what I was doing hit home.
“I remember one time we were doing dawn and dusk flights, looking for drug runners. We’ve been launching our aircraft at 4am for weeks.
“I’m stood out on the bay watching the aircraft go. You couldn’t see very much and the aircraft disappears off and within a quarter of a mile he was lights off down-low off looking for targets.
“We’re doing this everyday and I suddenly think ‘I’m signing for that and been doing it for weeks’. The aircrew are your friends and I’m putting them over the sea every single day. That’s my engineering signature that signs that off.
“You need to be afraid. You need to be scared all the time. You cannot get complacent.”
He adds: “We lost a lot of Lynx in the noughties. It has a massive effect on the force and the people when you lose aircraft and people. I never want to be on the back of that again, I never want to see other flights go through what they went through.”
Certainly, the modern Wildcat is night and day from the Lynx.
“If you think of Lynx as clockwork, Wildcat is digital. The Lynx were literally clockwork. Run by cogs and dials, air and bellows, like old Rover cars,” explains CPO Rogers.
“The Wildcat is a completely digital system. Whereas before our engines would have been controlled by mechanical, feeling the head slow down and spooling the engines up to compensate. This is all done electronically by four computers.
“The avionics suite is Star Wars compared to what the Lynx could do. The camera and the radar as a combination are pretty amazing.”
“Does it look like a Lynx? It would be stupid to deny it doesn’t but it is not a Lynx,” adds Cdr Lang.
“This is a much more modern, much more capable helicopter, but one that benefits from the fact that the Royal Navy was operating the Lynx helicopter and Leonardo was making it and supporting it for 40 odd years.
“All of the benefit of generations of experience – aircrew, maintainers or manufacturer – the Navy has a distilled all of that and basically brought Wildcat into service off the back of all that information and knowledge. Now, we are putting together an exceptional product that is effectively world-beating and has a world-beating anti-surface capability.”
Read the full feature in January 2024's Navy News