Ian Harding reports from RNAS Yeovilton on the start of a new age for helicopter maritime attack in the UK
Reformed on August 1, 2014, 825 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) is the AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat HMA2 component of the Lynx Wildcat Maritime Force (LWMF), charged with training aircrew and engineers, standing up the first deployable Wildcat HMA2 flights and nurturing 815 NAS’s transition from Lynx HMA8 to Wildcat. Within ten months, the LWMF will be become the Wildcat Maritime Force with the Lynx HMA8’s Out of Service Date scheduled for March 31, 2017. A new era of helicopter maritime attack (HMA) beckons and AIR International visited Yeovilton to consider recent progress.
An early measure of 825’s success came when their first Wildcat HMA2 (201 Flight) departed Portsmouth Dockyard on March 21, 2015 aboard HMS Lancaster (a Type 23 frigate) on a nine-month Atlantic mission destined for the Caribbean, South America, Falklands and southern Africa. Commander Simon Collins, Commanding Officer, 825 NAS, a key member of the programme since 2013 and involved in the Wildcat HMA2’s introduction, takes up the story.
“Our first deployed flight proved extremely successful, with excellent availability. Only a few sorties were lost throughout the nine months, which is encouraging, especially considering how young the aircraft is in terms of its development and maturity of its stores support. The aircraft’s initial operating capability was only achieved in January 2015 and full operational capability [FOC] remains some way off in January 2018. Our gradient of learning and development is steep, but the results to date are impressive.”
As the lead Wildcat HMA2 squadron, 825 has the most people, aircraft and experience (all instructors are within 825), both embarked and disembarked. Their effort is broadly structured as one-third operational and twothirds training. The Royal Navy is scheduled to receive 28 aircraft in total: 12 assigned to 825 and 12 to 815, with the remaining four undergoing deeper maintenance. The last Wildcat HMA2 was received by 825 in October 2016. The number of Wildcats assigned to 825 varies between 11 and 15, as aircraft enter the Retrofit After Delivery (RAD) modification programme completed at AgustaWestland’s Yeovil manufacturing facility. Within the past 12 months, 825 has established its four operational flights as planned, each with one aircraft permanently assigned. Its remaining aircraft (eight on average, currently) are assigned to aircrew training. During April 2016, 825 transferred four Wildcats to 815, plus approximately 50 of its most experienced engineers and some aircrew to enable them to stand up the maritime counter terrorism (MCT) role. By the end of September 2016, 815 had six aircraft assigned. The expectation is 815 will become a self-sustaining Wildcat squadron by March 2017. The aim is to establish 16 flights (815 with 12 and 825 with four) by May 2017.
Cdr Collins said: “The aim is 815 will focus on MCT and Type 23 frigate flights, with 825 focused on training and Type 45 flights. The ultimate goal is to double-man flights (two aircrew per aircraft) with 1.5 maintainers per aircraft. Once 815 is fully established, there will be an opportunity to reconsider this long-term road map and change it if necessary. We have a lot of work to do in the interim.
“Presently, two of our four operational flights are deployed in the Mediterranean [aboard Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, Cardigan Bay and Mounts Bay]. A third has recently completed basic operational sea training during FOST [Flag Officer Sea Training] aboard HMS Daring and will deploy to the Middle East soon. Our fourth flight is regenerating following its ninemonth deployment. There was a period recently when three of my four flights were embarked; 75% of my operational output was deployed.”
The primary role of 825 is training aircrew and engineers to fly and maintain the Wildcat HMA2. This also includes 847 NAS engineers (part of Commando Helicopter Force operating the Wildcat AH1) also located at Yeovilton. Training personnel alongside prioritised operational commitments represents a significant challenge as their demands are in many respects diametrically opposed. This situation should hopefully ease itself once 815 has built experience and established more Wildcat Flights.
RADAR AND ELECTRO-OPTICAL DEVICE
The Wildcat HMA2 has active electronically scanned array technology in the Selex Galileo Seaspray 7400E radar. The radar is multimode, with air-to-air, air-to-ground and air-to-surface modes that are controlled by the tactical processor and the observer using images and views presented on the Individual Display Units. The radar is especially suited to surveillance, weather detection, ground mapping, maritime patrol and SAR operations.
The helicopter is equipped with an L-3 Wescam MX-15Di imaging system with electro-optical housed turret located in the nose structure. It produces high-resolution images used for tactical surveillance, which in turn enables long-range target identification, laser target designation (for other attack helicopters, unmanned aerial systems and jets) and range-finding capability. Target designation is vital new weapons that will be integrated on Wildcat HMA2. The MX-15Di enhances situational awareness by enabling aircrews to search, detect, identify and prosecute targets day and night in all weathers. Images captured by the MX-15Di and displayed on the IDUs can be downloaded for later analysis.
All four students on the initial ab initio aircrew training course graduated during May 2016. This initial course was run alone and front to back for good reason as it enabled 825 to test and resolve any training course issues. Aircrew training is now at its maximum, with two ab initio courses per year (starting April and October), plus new Lynx to Wildcat conversion courses every three months (each lasting approximately six months) that are required to generate future instructors and 815’s flights.
Cdr Collins said: “A valid point to make, given Wildcat is still relatively new, is that some of our most ‘qualified’ people within the Wildcat Force are our recently qualified students and new ‘convertees’ who received the gold standard training course. Their training is completely different [from] the factory-delivered training a number of us received. Aside from the obvious challenges, more work is required before the Wildcat Synthetic Training System – comprising two full motion simulators, two procedural [non-motion] simulators and two ‘airframes’ to teach maintainers – is fully delivered and tested.
“The downside is an increase in training flights. The upside is our students obtain more cockpit experience. As for operational ab initio training exercises, 825 participate in FOST serials and undertake continental navigation exercises [NAVEX]; the latter is key to ensure that our aircrew can operate globally, in unfamiliar countries, safely and effectively. The first NAVEX in 2015 was to Ovar in Portugal.”
How Good is Wildcat HMA2?
AIR International spoke with two experienced former Lynx HMA8 Observers who completed their Wildcat HMA2 conversion together in October 2015. Both served on the first type deployment to the Gulf region and later the Aegean Sea. Lieutenant Commander Anthony Johnson, 825’s Operations Officer, and Lieutenant Adam Previtt are both tactical specialists who ‘fight’ the aircraft from the left seat.
Lt Cdr Johnson said: “I flew Lynx for 23 years and thought it would be hard to replace it. This ‘beast’ is just great; I don’t miss the Lynx. The Wildcat environment is much nicer; it’s smooth and comfortable. It is an embryonic aircraft in that we are still exploring its potential and capabilities. As we build our operational experience, we realise this aircraft has enormous potential, which will be enhanced when we receive advanced weapons, a tactical data link [TDL] to enable us to disseminate data more efficiently and greater fuel capacity to extend endurance. There is no difference between night and daylight operations in Wildcat. When it gets dark, we move straight into NVG [night-vision goggles] operations with [a] one switch click. It’s beautiful! Our ab initio students train on goggles as standard now; they’ll probably wonder what the fuss was all about.”
Lt Previtt said flying the Wildcat requires a different mind set: “The step-change from Lynx is huge. As an observer, we are heads down and working tactically; we are more of a sensor operator now. The systems are integrated, highly intuitive, with a lot of effort having been placed into the human-machine interface. The interface between the camera, radar and displays is completed with a simple mouse click. The biggest challenge is getting your hands on the system, given the training demands, and working out the quickest route to achieve a task.
“We can achieve many things we couldn’t before and much quicker; searching for a specific ship using AIS [automatic identification system], for example, now takes a few seconds. Pre-planning an ISTAR [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance] mission using the CAGE [Combined Arms Gateway Environment] system, a mission planning computer, we can plan exactly where we are going, what we’ll see, consider the terrain in more detail, what height we need to be at to look down valleys, etc. Once airborne, what used to take two hours in a Lynx, we achieve in Wildcat in minutes.”
The amount of information generated by Wildcat’s systems is huge. The major issue is having the capability to distribute it in a timely and effective manner. Although both UK Wildcat variants have the Bowman tactical communication system, providing secure voice, data communications and an integrated GPS, neither has a TDL.
Aircrew and the Wildcat Force have identified disseminating data as their top priority. Lt Cdr Johnson said: “The aircraft’s sensors and camera produce a wealth of information. The major issue encountered when deployed recently was how to distribute the information gathered in a timely fashion to our customer’s, which could include ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] Directorate within the Air Component Command, embarked or land based. It could be a ship’s position, airfield, port or pirate position, electronic information, radar or camera image, or pattern of life. At present, we have to download everything our systems produce on to some form of media and present this when we land. We cannot currently transfer this data electronically whilst airborne, so we continue to use voice communication.”
An uplink is considered essential for preparation of the battlefield, analysing patterns of life and delivering a kinetic effect in a littoral situation if required. Lt Cdr Johnson added: “To satisfy targeting principles in theatre we need positive identification, to prove the pattern of life to remove collateral damage and that requires confirmation from a national engagement authority.” Aircrew must ultimately remove any time delay that could be critical.
During recent operations, 825 operated alongside the Royal Navy’s Merlin HM2, whose primary role is anti-submarine warfare, which compares with the Wildcat’s anti-surface warfare (ASuW) role. Unlike the Wildcat, the Merlin has a TDL, so aircrew had to establish a Concept of Operations (CONOPS). Lt Cdr Johnson explained: “In the past the Merlin directed the Lynx, which was the weapon carrier. We envisaged different scenarios with roles reversed, including one where we used our moving target indicator radar and superior camera to detect fastmoving attack craft. For force protection or barrier patrols, we envisaged the Wildcat operating high and the Merlin, which has greater endurance at speed, being the identifying asset.”
Based on these initial deployments, Wildcat HMA2 is challenging existing thinking as to how HMA profiles should be flown. Until such time that Wildcat HMA2 receives its future generation of weapons (testing of future air-to-surface guided weapons is scheduled for 2017), role reversal may make sense in specific situations, given that its sensors and camera are so capable. One suggested: “We no longer need to blast around the sky at maximum speed to get into position to see something. We just sit back and see it anyway.”
Not only can Wildcat operate at far greater distances from potential threats, but also its radar technology provides a low probability of intercept, which enhances operational crew safety. Lt Cdr Johnson said: “It is increasingly clear that Wildcat offers utility in so many roles that will be enhanced when we can deliver a kinetic effect, a TDL is added and our range extended. What we can bring to the party in terms of ISR is an awful lot more than previously.”
However, weight considerations are extremely relevant, given the demands to add weapons and increase fuel capacity. With a four-blade rotor head, the Wildcat is limited to a 6,250kg (13,778lb) load and the HMA2 variant is already heavier due to the radar. The current development limit on the aircraft is 6,050kg (13,338lb), so there is 200kg (440lb) to play with before a modified rotor head becomes necessary
The Wildcat’s camera has received much acclaim, but its recent deployment performance surpassed expectations. Lt Previtt said: “Image quality and clarity was incredible. I was blown away by it. Humidity could affect the Lynx camera so badly at times you wondered why you’d turned it on. Wildcat’s camera operates in a different frequency band, but it also has an electro-optical ‘day TV’ mode which is unaffected by humidity. Integrated with our mission systems and producing an image on a large screen in front of us, our camera produced remarkable results at ridiculous ranges: perhaps 20% better than Merlin and at least three times better than Lynx. We routinely identified contacts outside our maximum engagement range, unheard of with Lynx, although they can still deliver a kinetic effect.”
During this deployment 825’s primary role was ASuW. It completed approximately 35 hours of operational tasking each month (around 200 in total). Predominantly night flying and working alongside the Merlin, 825 tried to replicate their three-hour 30-minute sorties by completing two one-hour 45-minute sorties on NVGs.
Lt Cdr Johnson added: “Our results were outstanding in comparison. A lot of that is how we operate in the aircraft plus we are the ASuW experts. We bring an awful lot to the party in terms of ISR.
Aircrew also confirmed their situational awareness was markedly improved, with the observer able to pass over some of the position’s historic workload to the pilot allowing, the observer to concentrate on the tactical side.
Maintainers always works tirelessly to ensure squadron commitments are met, and 825’s are no different in this – although the nature of the challenge is, because it involves an embryonic aircraft. Lieutenant Commander Nick Almond, 825 NAS Aircraft Engineering Officer (AEO) said: “Our responsibilities are fourfold, involving ab initios, type conversion [approximately ten weeks in total including competency checks], manning operational flights and 815’s Wildcat transition. It is a challenging learning curve, but we are proceeding well. This is also a testament to the aircraft’s quality, which is largely available for service.”
There was two weeks’ notice for 825 for their Middle East deployment. One aircraft deployed with two aircrew and eight maintainers. Deployed FOC was declared three days early and the aircraft was available for tasking from its land base almost every day (99% availability). Lt Cdr Almond said: “Whilst impressive, HMS Lancaster’s deployment [ending December 2015] provided one maintenance data point and this deployment another. It’s no surprise that aircraft serviceability away from the squadron is so good, because we have a tried and tested formula with one small engineering team focused purely on that aircraft. This engenders a sense of ownership; they understand every little snag, plus they see the aircraft operating and the results achieved. It’s a team effort. Aircraft shake down on their return involved some additional husbandry checks but nothing major.”
The deployable spares pack remains a work in progress, but here engineers are empowered to determine what spares are required based on their knowledge of the aircraft. Knowledge is also shared between squadrons, including 847 NAS, which has completed operations in Norway’s Arctic Circle (Exercise Clockwork), Arizona (Marine Corps Air Station Yuma) and California (Naval Air Facility El Centro) during 2016.
Lt Cdr Brett Gillies, 815’s AEO, added: “We will soon have more data points to assess, including the impact of heat on the aircraft. 815 and 825 have three flights in total deployed currently: 815 the latest, which embarked on board HMS Duncan at the end of May. 815 have transferred 25% of its engineers to Wildcat and our engineering numbers are approximately 75% of where we need to be.”
Wildcat maintenance packages are blocked together at present into 25, 50, 100, 200 and 300 hourly checks, unlike the Lynx, which has flexed maintenance. Lt Cdr Almond was a key member of the project development team considering how maintenance schedules for Wildcat could be made more efficient. He said: “If you plot maintenance man hours per flying hour or maintenance man hours associated with each of those packages, there is no real depth [maintenance]. One of my previous roles was considering where Wildcat depth would fall if completed within squadrons, rather than sending them away at set intervals for external depth.
“Plotting out 200, 300, 400 [flying hour] spikes confirmed they’re not cyclical, so it’s difficult to choose when a huge package should take place, especially given aircraft are routinely removed to complete various RAD packages. Most of our aircraft are around 300 hours. The wider fleet has 500-hour aircraft. The closest we got on HMA was 480 hours before the RAD programme removed it.”
Wildcat is effectively helping reshape maintenance schedules. Serious consideration is being given to whether the Wildcat fleet requires a traditional depth maintenance profile. Further analysis is obviously required before definitive decisions can be taken. However, many assert that military aircraft are overmaintained in some areas and Wildcat’s maintainers are certainly considering the implications of a new approach.
Lt Cdr Almond said: “We bought 28 aircraft and there is a requirement for 24 in our forward fleet, so sending one away every six months is inefficient and doesn’t happen commercially. Both squadrons’ throughput is so high, a significant engineering effort would be required to regenerate an aircraft even if away for a couple of months. The aircraft’s health and usage monitoring system and the new transmission vibration monitoring system help us identify problems early, providing new learning thresholds that we can act upon. We therefore need to be smarter about the way we use these intelligent systems and adapt our cyclical programmes accordingly.”
The success of Wildcat HMA2’s first operational deployments is clear to those on the front line; 825 and 815 will continue to feed their experience back to both the manufacturer and various commands who will develop tactics and assess its wider potential use, which is considerable, especially in terms of adding weapons, TDL and increased range.
The burning long-term issue for the decision-making bodies is how to use the aircraft’s capability and potential to develop future CONOPS. Starting offshore, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that this variant offers huge potential in the land and littoral environment. Expectations must be tempered though, because FOC remains some way off, as Cdr Collins confirmed: “We are still learning about Wildcat.”
However, he added: “I sometimes wonder now how I ever achieved what I did in the Lynx when I compare it to what I can now deliver capability wise in Wildcat.”
FUTURE ANTI-SURFACE GUIDED WEAPON
Thales and MBDA have been contracted to supply the Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon (FASGW) Light (L) and FASGW Heavy (H) respectively. FASGW(L) is a lightweight precision-guided weapon capable of providing multiple channels of fire and delivering a proportional and precise effect against a wide range of air, land and sea targets such as fast inshore attack craft and rigid inflatable boats. FASGW(H), known as Sea Venom in service with the Royal Navy, is intended to counter the more severe threat posed by fast attack craft and corvettes (up to 1,000 tonnes), as well as striking static and soft coastal targets like FASGW(L). The target for initial operational capability is around 2020.