The Merlin Mk 2 is the Navy’s new-and-improved version of the world’s leading anti-submarine helicopter, conducting its initial trials with the Royal Navy’s first line of defence against the threat from underwater foes: the Type 23 frigate.
The Merlin has been in service with the Royal Navy for more than a decade, but is in the middle of a £750m revamp which will see the fleet of helicopters, all based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall, ready to take the fight to submarines until the end of the 2020s.
Although it looks almost identical outwardly, inside the Mk 2 Merlin is an entirely different beast, fitted with a state-of-the-art touch screen, integrated command system for both flying and fighting.
In its normal configuration, the rear of the helicopter is a mini operations room that uses numerous sensors to detect and identify both submarines and ships on the surface. Those hi-tech consoles can also be quickly removed by Merlin engineers to convert it into a troop carrier or flying ambulance.
For now, Lancaster is focusing on the basics of working with the new helicopter in the Channel.
So once the helicopter from 829 Naval Air Squadron – which supplies Type 23 frigates with Merlin’s, aircrew and engineers for operations around the world – was embarked, numerous exercises began.
Crash on deck exercises were practised that run out the ship’s emergency response organisation, while the Merlin conducted numerous sorties and secondary duties, such as winching a casualty from the frigate’s forecastle.
“I am very proud to be the first to operate a Merlin Mk 2 from a Type 23 Frigate,” said Lt Cdr Simon ‘Stevo’ Stevenson, 01 Flight Commander.
“It is an exciting time and I am looking forward to working together with HMS Lancaster, testing its capabilities to the max.
“This short embarkation represents another major step forward of the integration of a vastly capable and complex aircraft into the Royal Navy, ensuring we remain at the forefront of anti-surface and sub-surface warfare.”
For the Commanding Officer of the Portsmouth-based warship – which was instrumental in trials helping the original Merlin into service nearly 15 years ago – the arrival of the ‘souped-up’ helicopter is a real bonus to Frigate operations.
“The new Merlin is a huge step forward in capability for the Royal Navy and Lancaster is very privileged to be part of these trials,” said Commander Peter Laughton.
“In the weeks to come we will be working very closely with Merlin Mk 2 and her crew to ensure its successful introduction into front-line service.”
Two of the Royal Navy’s four Merlin squadrons have now converted to the upgraded helicopter, which has deployed overseas for the first time (an anti-submarine exercise off Norway).
The biggest test yet for the new Merlin will be a huge submarine hunt led by HMS Illustrious in June, when eight Mk 2’s are lined up to join the veteran carrier for Exercise Deep Blue in the Atlantic.
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