The Commando Merlin MK4 Has Arrived
AND SO SAID GUTO BEBB MINISTER FOR DEFENCE PROCUREMENT WHEN HE VISITED CHF AT RNAS YEOVILTON ON THE 24TH MAY.
He announced the delivery of the first of a fleet of new helicopters designed for Royal Marines aircraft carrier operations. The Commando Merlin (Cdo Me) Mk4, has been upgraded to a modernised, marinised, faster and more powerful aircraft than its predecessor. The Minister said:
“This new version of the Merlin will provide an essential bridge between sea and land for our Marines operating from ships, including our brand-new aircraft carriers. This fleet will deliver troops and supplies to the centre of the action, be that a conflict zone or the site of a humanitarian disaster, as well as providing search and rescue cover”.
The event saw the unveiling of the first Cdo Me MK4 in a blaze of light, smoke and sound whilst Royal Marines Commandos exited the rear ramp before the head and tail folded.
CHF’s Merlin HC3/3A fleet is currently in the process of upgrade under the Merlin Life Sustainment Programme (MLSP). This will see all 25 aircraft upgraded to HC4/4A standard.
The aircraft is fully optimised for ship operations with features that include automatic main rotor blade and tail folding, uprated undercarriage and enhanced avionics and cockpit features which were developed for the Royal Navy’s Merlin HM2 helicopter. Folded, four Cdo Me will sit in the footprint of one Chinook helicopter. The aircraft additionally features an upgraded self-protection system, tactical processor, and is fitted capable of full instrument procedures to allow global self-deployments through controlled airspace. The aircraft has received the latest generation Defensive Aids System which can identify hostile weapons systems rapidly and can initiate appropriate tactics and countermeasures. The modifications are designed to ensure it can now operate from sea including on the UK’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Each of CHF’s Merlin squadrons has a defined role. 845 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) and 846 NAS will both use the Cdo Me MK4 for amphibious transport of troops and supplies for 3 Commando Brigade.
845 NAS is CHF’s High Readiness Squadron for contingency. This key role is necessary to support the Maritime Task Group (MTG) going forward following the introduction of the UK’s new generation of aircraft carriers.
CHF has assessed what the future operating environment is and where the threats are likely to come from and have tied that in with the future Commando forces and the new carriers that are coming into service. In addition to the tactical movement of troops, providing underslung load lifts and the other vertical replenishment capability we provide, the question CHF asked the MTG and Defence is what else do they need CHF to do? Looking at this in detail, it was quite clear the MTG needed Support Helicopters (SH) to support them internally within the task group and between the task group and shore because the MTG will spend a lot time away from shore because of force protection issues; avoiding aggressor missile systems etcetera. They need an aircraft with endurance which the Merlin has with over 3.5 hours of fuel (standard range without external tanks is 576 miles (927 kms)). The Cdo Me HC4 is a tactical aircraft, fully marinised and it is strategic in that CO CHF can self-deploy the aircraft from Somerset in Yeovilton to Cyprus in less than 36 hours. The Cdo Me can also be loaded into the back of a C-17 in approximately 18 hours, and can then be flown anywhere in the world.
“The Commando Merlin (Cdo Me) Mk4, has been upgraded to a modernised, marinised, faster and more powerful aircraft than its predecessor.”
Much attention has been focussed on the aircraft carrier and the F-35Bs operating from their decks with scant thought for the integral part that CHF Cdo Me HC4s will play in their operation. CHF continue to work up packages to support both entities in the future. If for example the unfortunate happens and a rotary or fixed wing aircraft goes down ashore in a threat environment or a fast jet pilot has to eject, there is a requirement for some methodology for recovery and CHF has a Joint Personnel Recovery (JPR) capability which it is training for. The Merlin is an exceptional aircraft for this role with its ramp, three light General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMG), ballistic protection, advanced Defensive Aids Suite (DAS), tactical processors, speeds in excess of 160 knots and highly trained crews specialised in the low level flying environment. There are also systems on board that are secure, can direction find enabling crews to pick up personnel from precise ground locations. Going forward CHF will integrate with F-35s and other fixed wing assets that are in the overhead protecting us. It is essential that CHF maintain force protection in this combined operational environment. That threat is very real and in the past the UK has had to use USAF Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) for the tactical recovery of personnel and aircraft. CHF is now developing its own independent CSAR capability.
It is important to note that there is a clear distinction between the SAR provided by civilian agencies and that which will be specifically provided by CHF when deployed aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth in a maritime threat environment. It is a niche role that CHF aircrew have trained for under day/night conditions (using NVGs) ahead of 845 NAS deployment aboard the carrier in August 2018 with three Commando Merlin HC4s.
846 NAS is responsible for UK Maritime Counter Terrorism (MCT) and Operational Conversion Flight (OCF) and going with a number of aircraft maintained on alert for UK Special Forces MCT tasking.