Another Magnificent Seven

Ian Harding brings us up to date with the activities of the UK’s naval ISTAR practitioners, 849 Naval Air Squadron


Two Sea King ASaC7s return to Culdrose after embarkation on the fictitious aircraft carrier HMS Seahawk, during Exercise Kernow Flag. Throughout the November 2017 event, Sea King ASaC7s were used to counter enemy air threats.
All photos Ian Harding

A new era beckons for the Sea King Airborne Surveillance and Control (SKASaC) Force, affectionately known as the ‘baggers’, following the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announcement in January 2017 that the Crowsnest system would go ahead. Crowsnest will provide the Royal Navy with an enhanced maritime intelligence surveillance targeting acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability. Fitted with some of the most advanced radar and sensor systems available, the aspiration is that by 2022 the current Cerberus mission system and Searchwater radar mounted from the starboard (right) side of the Royal Navy’s ageing Sea King Airborne Surveillance and Control Mark 7 fleet (Sea King ASaC7), will be replaced by a vastly superior version of the Thales UK mission system positioned on the port (left) side of an upgraded Merlin HM2. Celebrating 65 years of airborne early warning (AEW) capability in September 2017, the building blocks for the Royal Navy’s future ISTAR capability are in place.

Little is known about the SKASaC Force, due to the highly sensitive nature of its work. Its specialist aircrews operate airborne radar stations, placing a radar shield around the fleet and coalition ground forces.

Then there was one!

Until January 2016, the SKASaC Force comprised three squadrons all based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall; 849 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), which was a training squadron, and two frontline squadrons, 854 and 857 NAS, which shared the remaining ten aircraft. These squadrons had shared this responsibility since 2002 when the first Sea King ASaC7 entered service. Soon after their return from operations in Afghanistan in July 2014, 854 and 857 merged into 849 NAS, additionally taking on their front-line responsibilities. At the end of March 2017, 849 NAS comprised three front-line flights – Normandy, Okinawa and Palembang – which now share the remaining seven Sea King ASaC7s.

Lieutenant Commander Serena Davidson, senior observer 849 NAS said: “Some manpower changes resulted from this structural change and further rationalisation may occur as the squadron draws down towards the Sea King ASaC7 out-of-service date currently scheduled for quarter three 2018. Our last ab initio aircrew completed their training approximately two years ago, whilst the last two Sea King ASaC7refresher aircrews completed their training during quarter one 2017 before heading off to take part in Operation Kipion in March. Each flight comprises nine aircrew, plus we have a small pool of additional aircrew in the parent unit who will rotate into a frontline flight as required.”

Lt Cdr Davidson is the longest aircrew member to have served continuously with the SKASaC Force, having accumulated over 2,000 flight hours on the Sea King ASaC 7 since gaining her wings and immediately moving on to the platform with 849’s ‘B’ Flight in 2006. As well as undertaking counterpiracy and other operations, she also completed four Operation Herrick and three Operation Kipion tours, two as Palembang Flight commander.

As well as being 849’s senior observer, she is a qualified observer instructor.


The Sea King ASaC7 charts its development to the 1980s when the Sea King AEW2 helicopter was rushed into service to meet naval requirements for an airborne early warning (AEW) capability following the loss of a number of surface ships to enemy aircraft during the 1982 Falklands War. Thirteen AEW2s were upgraded in the first instance by GKN Westland (now Leonardo Helicopters) and Racal Radar Defence Systems (now part of Thales UK) under the Cerberus mission system upgrade from 1997, eventually being redesignated as the ASaC7. Two further Sea King HC6s were later modified to ASaC7 standard following the loss of two aircraft after they collided during carrier operations associated with the invasion of Iraq. The first two ASaC7s were delivered to the Royal Navy in May 2002 with the order completed by 2004. Deployed on board HMS Ark Royal for the first time during Operation Telic in March 2003, the ASaC7 and its highly skilled crews were soon providing Navy Command with significantly better ISTAR capability, completing missions previously the domain of much larger fixed-wing airborne surveillance aircraft. Following five years of unbroken daily support to Operation Herrick in Afghanistan, the ASaC Force returned home to RNAS Culdrose during July 2014 to regenerate its maritime capabilities. Just six weeks after completing 26 months of continuous duty at Camp Bastion from March 2012 to May 2014, 857 NAS handed over to 854 NAS to finalise the Force withdrawal.

A Sea King ASaC7 flight crew comprises a single pilot and two specialist observers seated side by side in the rear cabin behind two touchscreen mission consoles. The expectation is this crew profile will be retained within the upgraded Merlin HM2; however, a change in the future cannot be ruled out.

A Sea King ASaC7 flight crew includes two specialist observers seated side by side in the rear cabin behind two touchscreen mission consoles.
Sea King ASaC7 ZE422/92 near St Michael’s Mount, located on Cornwall’s southern coast near Marazion.


With no other specialist capability like the Sea King ASaC7 available to the MoD, it is imperative its connectivity is maintained and available at all times. This is especially so with the UK’s first new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) commencing sea trials in late June 2017.

With over 10,000 flying hours per aircraft, a single dedicated force of engineers and avionics specialists work extremely hard to keep the platform and mission system serviceable and safe to fly.

Lt Cdr Davidson said: “This is a major priority, which we are all mindful of. I will touch wood and say they are fantastic and a very durable aircraft. The only issue which limits us and is on our horizon is spare engine availability, hence the reason we must look after them so carefully. We have suffcient surplus stock currently, but that can change quickly. We do know the Sea King very well; she is very hands on: unlike Merlin, which is much more computer based.”

Future eyes and ears

Crowsnest is a core funded pillar of the MoD’s Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) programme, which will comprise two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and the F-35B Lightning II to operate from their decks. The Sea King squadron’s Crowsnest preparations are well underway.

Lt Cdr Davidson confirmed: “Within 849, some aircrew have conducted elements of their Merlin HM2 training with 824 NAS, and they will eventually return to us once their conversion training has been completed in the future as instructors to support our Merlin transition. The expectation is that most of our existing observers will become Crowsnest observers. Formal Crowsnest training will commence from the system’s ISD [in-service date], but before then we are taking every opportunity to maximise our fighter control skills and bring the Sea King ASaC7 back to the surface fleet through both LIVEX [live exercises] and synthetic training.”

The squadron is currently receiving many requests to practise and develop its skills with a diverse range of potential future customers. Working with the surface fleet is critical especially with Principal Warfare Officers (PWOs) aboard Type 45 destroyers, for example, plus those in the air as the date for Crowsnest’s induction approaches.

An interesting example of this was in November and December 2014 when Lt Cdr Davidson was deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the Gulf as the SKASaC force liaison officer. She said:

“We spent an excellent three weeks working alongside MH-60 Seahawks, a Royal Navy Lynx [now replaced by the Wildcat HMA2] and a Scan Eagle UAV from HMS Kent [a Type 23 Frigate] to provide Carrier Strike Group 1 with maritime surveillance 24/7. Our aircraft operated from RFA [Royal Fleet Auxiliary] Fort Austin.”

The squadron confirmed it will support as many such training opportunities as possible, due to the benefits derived. However, in building its operational programme, it remains mindful of the considerable engineering effort required to ensure its ageing Sea King ASaC7 fleet remains serviceable.

Fast pace

As the Squadron prepares to enter its final year of Sea King ASaC7 operations, its schedule confirms it has a very full exercise programme incorporating a wide range of ops to meet current and future requirements.

Sea King ASaC7 ZE422/92 conducting a confined area landing. One of the rear crew is seen checking the clearance behind the aircraft as it comes into land with the bag containing the radar retracted.
Seven Sea King ASaC7s remained in service at the beginning of 2018. The type’s out of service date is in the third quarter of 2018 but 849’s transition to the Merlin HM2 configured with the Crowsnest system is well underway.


The UK’s CEPP programme was introduced in January 2016 to help achieve key milestones that include the migration of the programme into its operational phase from 2018 and to deliver initial carrier strike operating capability by December 2020. In 2018, HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) will get underway in the North Atlantic to complete more sea trials and rotary certification before heading to the United States to commence F-35B Lightning II first-in-class flight trials.

Operation Kipion has been an enduring operational commitment of the SKASaC force since August 2014, and 849’s role is part of the UK commitment to the international maritime presence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, which is retained to help promote and maintain peace and stability in the region. Other Royal Navy assets involved comprise Culdrose-based Merlin HM2s and embarked Wildcat HM2s based at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset. Lt Cdr Davidson said: “Our personnel essentially cycle through for three-and-a-half months each at a time: fairly short in Navy terms, but being continuous the hours quickly rack up.

As each flight returns, it regenerates, and the next flight builds up. Overall, I would suggest our workload is approximately 50% each on current Kipion operations and regeneration of our maritime and embarked capability, which includes developing how we will work with HMS Queen Elizabeth, F-35B and other components of the Maritime Task Group.

Our participation in LIVEX includes two exercises we will complete wholly within our full mission trainer [FMT] linked up with others around the UK. The first of these major synthetic LIVEX was Agile Thunder 2017 held in April 2017 [see AIR International August p84–87]. The first [iteration], held in 2014, proved very successful, as it confirmed our FMT could be networked with other synthetic trainers in this way. This will run for approximately three weeks, with many of our crews taking part. For this exercise, our simulator at Culdrose will be connected to others including a Type 45 destroyer plus those at RAF Waddington [Lincolnshire], which is the hub controlling other aircraft.

This is an F-35 simulator exercise that data links us with other [Tactical Data Link] Link 16-capable platforms. This helps us better understand and develop our tactics together as they are progressing. It is a very labourintensive exercise, which was led by observers working up for their Kipion deployment.”

The second LIVEX was Virtual Fury in June 2017. This exercise took simulation testing to a new level and elevated it into a virtual warfighting exercise. Run by the Air Battlespace Training Centre at RAF Waddington, the main objective of this exercise was to train Typhoon crews ahead of an operational deployment overseas. During this exercise, 849’s aircrew acted as a Crowsnest system working alongside other virtual assets, which included Type 45 destroyers, Typhoons, E-3 AWACS and Canadian and US assets. There is clear momentum in this form of development, which the squadron is keen to build on ahead of the Crowsnest system service entry.

The SKASaC force has also focused heavily on tactical training during recent times, working overseas and closer to home with other surface ships going through their Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) force generation and other Culdrose-based assets, for example, 736 NAS Hawk T1As.

Thursday war

FOST based in Devonport, Devon, is responsible for ensuring all Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships are fit to undertake operational tasking. A key part of that testing involves assessing the ship’s company’s reaction to emergency scenarios. As a consequence, 849 regularly participates in what has colloquially become known as the ‘Thursday War’, which is basically a weekly warfighting and damage-control exercise using fast jets and other assets. There are different phases of its assessment, but initially 849 works alongside 736 NAS Hawk jets acting as aggressor aircraft towards the fleet task force.

Cdr Chris Hughes, Commanding Officer, 849 NAS, said: “Having spent almost a decade focusing on operations in Afghanistan, which was land-centric, and the Middle East, the Royal Navy has lost touch with the role of Sea King ASaC7. FOST work is therefore vital to our reintegration to the fleet as it switches focus to maritime task group activity. When we work with FOST now, we will complete a mixture of training comprising both antisurface and anti-air environments. The key with FOST is we are trying to educate the ships’ PWOs. We are currently participating two or three times per week, which was unheard of in previous years. 849 will provide them with AEW such that the task forces’ own fighter controllers [ship-based or Sea King ASaC7-based] can then engage their inbound raids before threatening them.

Following this phase, we will move into a more advanced air and maritime integration serial working with FOST assets, including sometimes external UK-based and/or other partner nations’ fighter jet participation. “Aircrew will have less structure during the Thursday War, as they must learn to react as the situation unfolds, which is what we would expect within a contingent situation.

Our aircrews will build a recognised air picture or a recognised maritime picture using the external asset as a probe aircraft to identify contacts of interest and assess what activity is taking place. Radar information gathered will be transmitted to those units undertaking FOST training via the aircraft’s Link 16 data link, which improves their situational awareness. The key to making the most of this aircraft’s capability is its position at sea and ensuring it is properly employed.”

Sea King ASaC7 XV655/85 landing aboard RFA Argus (A135) during deck training following return from Afghanistan in 2014.
The Sea King ASaC7 flight deck comprises analogue avionics systems.

Skinner’s gold

Named after a well-known Cornish beer produced by Cornish brewery Skinner’s, the first Skinner’s Gold exercise took place in 2015 at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands, during which 849’s Sea King ASaC7s controlled F-16s from 322 Squadron over the North Sea.

Skinner’s Gold 2 took place in January 2016 at Base d’Aéronautique Navale Landivisiau in Brittany, France, home to the Aéronautique Navale’s Rafale fighter squadrons. Two 849 Sea King ASaC7s worked alongside based Rafale M aircraft for two weeks in a series of exercises guiding the fast jets on to their targets in exactly the same way as they will eventually do aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth (using upgraded Merlin HM2s). The emphasis was on developing the fast jet skills of 849’s aircrew as they build up.

Lt Cdr Chris Hughes said: “The crews of 849 took part in many different scenarios during Exercise Skinner’s Gold, including air policing and strike missions. For 849, a typical sortie lasted approximately 90 minutes and involved transiting from Landivisiau to a suitable barrier position, where they would stay and use their high-powered radar to build an air picture within the French exercise areas. Red Air enemy Rafales would try to attack a designated area whilst the Blue Air friendly Rafales would try to deter them. 849’s job was to provide the Blue Air fighter pilots with situational awareness of where the enemy aircraft were, giving them the upper hand in the fight. We flew ten missions during this exercise.”


The target in service date for the Crowsnest system is by Q3 2019, with initial operating capability by Q2 2020 and full operating capability (FOC) by 2022. With the new system in place, the ASaC force and 849 NAS will provide ASaC incorporating AEW, ISTAR and command and control by the FOC deadline. The advantages of Crowsnest compared with the current system include the ability to manage a significantly greater number of simultaneous tracks, additional radar modes, greater integration with other sensors, improved human-machine-interface along with enhanced combat identification functionality and integrated electronic support measures (see AIR International June 2017, p86–91).

The latest Skinner’s Gold exercise saw 849 integrated into the multinational NATO Tiger Meet exercise for the first time. The event was held at Landivisiau and hosted by 11 Flottille during June 2017. During this large-scale air exercise, 849 and 814 NAS (flying a Merlin HM2) participated fully in the main morning combined air operation and smaller shadow afternoon missions. Located mainly in the exercise areas around the northwest coast of France, the complexity of the air combat missions increased throughout the exercise.

Fast jet engagements included 2v1, 2v2, 4v4 between Blue coalition forces and Red hostile forces; 814 and 849 played key roles in both daily missions. The planning to immerse therotary component fully into the various missions was complex. Culdrose-based Merlin HM2 and Sea King ASaC7 helicopters helped protect the fast jets, whilst other helicopters such as French Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre (Army Aviation) Tigres protected them. Other rotary elements provided transportation, medical evacuation and combat SAR.

One of the tasks performed by 814’s Merlin helicopter was maritime target identification.

The aircraft’s mission systems were used to gather information on potential targets and to transmit this to French Rafales, supporting them in their strikes. They also worked closely with the Aéronautique Navale’s Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft based at Base d’Aéronautique Navale Lann-Bihoué that were taking part in Exercise Celtic Union, refining their antisubmarine warfare skills in preparation for the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth-Class aircraft carriers. This role will be undertaken by 849 in the future.

Although 849 is not a ‘Tiger’ squadron, it was invited as part of continued efforts to ensure its aircrew are at the top of their war-fighting game in between deployments to the Middle East.

Lt Mark Rose, Palembang flight commander, said: “The opportunity to control fast jets from NATO nations in a complex series of scenarios, ranging from air-to-air battles to anti-ship strikes, was a demanding challenge for the three-person crew. While the pilots got to grips with operating from an extremely busy fast jet base within French airspace rules, the observers, mission and sensor specialists, helped to coordinate the movements of the jets to accomplish their objective using the powerful radar and other equipment available in the Sea King ASaC7. A typical two to three-hour mission would effectively start some 24 hours prior to launch, with the observers involved in the detailed planning necessary for complex missions of this nature, providing invaluable exposure to the very best of what the NATO arsenal has to offer.

“This exercise not only provided us with a great opportunity to sharpen our aviation skills in a tactically demanding environment, but also provided a change of scenery for our aircraft maintenance personnel, who ensured we were on task for every mission during a very busy schedule. This latest instalment of 849’s drive to place itself at the heart of complex air warfare exercises forms part of our strategy to train our aircrew in preparation for our return to carrier strike operations aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.”

Sea King ASaC7s aboard HMS Ocean (L12) with a US Army CH-47F and three UH-60s when the Royal Navy led US Task Force 50 in the Gulf for the first time in November 2016.
Ground crew prepare a Sea King ASaC7 aboard the RFA Argus (A135).
The Sea King ASaC7 is one of the oldest and most distinctive military helicopters in the world thanks to its inflatable black sack on the right side. The sack houses a Thales Searchwater 2000 radar capable of detection of surface and air targets.

HMS Ocean

As well as working from land bases, it is critical 849 rejuvenates its more traditional ASaC skills aboard flat-deck carriers wherever possible ahead of Crowsnest. Having trained at sea aboard the RFA Argus (A135) following its return from Afghanistan in 2014, 849 has been rebuilding maritime skills working for the carrier task group led by HMS Ocean. The helicopter assault ship was the flagship of Combined Task Force 50 and in January 2017, Palembang flight deployed to reacquaint itself with both a large flat-deck and operating at sea.

Lt Cdr Chris Jones, Palembang flight commander, said: “This successful period embarked saw two of our Sea King ASaC7s operating in unison with both Royal Navy Merlin HM2s from HMS Ocean and a range of other coalition assets, including Aéronautique Navale NH90 NFH [NATO Frigate Helicopters] and US surface units. Each contributed in building a thorough understanding of the battle space. The focus on the surface picture was necessary to develop coalition understanding of a crucial trade route, ensuring commercial vessels have absolute freedom to conduct their tasks, protected by the security offered by a multinational coalition of naval and air forces. This period therefore demonstrated how important the ASaC capability, coupled with other assets who can visually identify contacts, can be to a maritime task group, with its wide area surveillance capability effectively expanding the ship’s surveillance footprint, and therefore increasing its sphere of influence.”

A vision of the future was clear, as an 849 Sea King ASaC7 led a formation of various Merlin helicopters and a Wildcat over HMS Queen Elizabeth as the carrier entered Portsmouth in August 2017. Although the Sea King ASaC7 has entered the twilight of its career, 849 is pushing both the aircraft and crews to meet their operational commitments and maintain continuity in training and skills ahead of the service entry of the Crowsnest system.