The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has disclosed plans to run on a limited number of Royal Navy (RN) Westland Sea King ASaC.7 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) helicopters beyond the March 2016 out-of-service date (OSD) previously set for the UK's entire Sea King fleet.
The move all but closes the gap between the retirement of the ASaC.7 and the introduction of the Crowsnest role-fit for the AgustaWestland AW101 Merlin HM.2.
Sea King HAR.3/3A helicopters are used by the Royal Air Force for search and rescue (SAR); and by the RN for commando support (HC.4), SAR (HU.5 SAR) and AEW&C (ASaC.7). It was previously planned that the entire inventory would be retired by the end of March 2016 under plans set out in the MoD's future rotary-wing strategy.
Announcing the decision to keep a number of ASaC.7 helicopters running beyond that date in a Defence Instructions and Notices bulletin, the MoD said: "The Sea King Mk 3/3A, Mk 4 and Mk 5 will cease operational flying and be withdrawn from service by 31 March 2016. A limited number of Mk 7s will continue operational flying until the third quarter of 2018."
IHS Jane's understands that seven ASaC.7 helicopters, to be operated by 849 Naval Air Squadron, will remain in service with the RN through to the second half of 2018. With the current Sea King Integrated Operational Support contract ending in 2016, the MoD is putting bespoke contractual arrangements in place with AgustaWestland and Rolls-Royce for continued support of the ASaC.7 to its revised OSD.
The MoD earlier this year confirmed plans to accelerate the replacement Crowsnest programme to achieve an initial operating capability (IOC) in 2019, ensuring organic air surveillance and battlespace management for Carrier Strike from 2020. Current planning assumptions call for the acquisition of 10 roll-on/roll-off Crowsnest kits, with all 30 Merlin HM.2 helicopters receiving 'fit-to-receive' modifications to enable the rapid installation of the ASaC mission package.
Lockheed Martin UK Integrated Systems, prime contractor for the Merlin HM.2 upgrade, last year received a GBP24 million (USD41 million) Assessment Phase 3 contract from the MoD to manage a competition between Thales UK and a separate 'firewalled' Lockheed Martin UK team for the design, development and demonstration of the Crowsnest radar and mission system solution. A Main Gate approval is planned for 2016.
An MoD spokesperson said: "The decision to extend the life of [the] Sea King Mk 7 was taken in January 2014 and will have no impact on the migration of equipment systems to Merlin or on Crowsnest."
No details of the costs associated with the ASaC.7 extension have been released.