As the last Sea King helicopters approach retirement a new chapter in airborne surveillance is opening.
On 4 May 1982, skimming across the sea at a height of less than three metres, an Argentinian Exocet missile slammed into HMS Sheffield, which was on a scouting mission near the Falkland Islands. 20 servicemen lost their lives. A further 26 were seriously injured.
Despite heroic efforts to save her, the Type 42 destroyer sank six days later. She was the first British warship to be lost in action since the Second World War. Five more British ships met a similar fate. Several others suffered substantial damage from enemy action.
Although many lessons were learned from the Falklands conflict, perhaps one of the most crucial demands was for an improved Airborne Early Warning system, for which an Urgent Operational Requirement was issued.
Thales rose to the challenge, equipping two Sea King helicopters with the latest Searchwater radar, working around the clock to complete the installation within just 90 days. The helicopters, so quickly converted, formed 824 D Flight and joined HMS Illustrious in the South Atlantic as she relieved her sister ship, HMS Invincible.
The Royal Navy’s quick decision-making and Thales’s fast reactions introduced sophisticated new levels of threat detection, protecting the lives of the men and women who we all rely on to protect our shores and international interests.
On 2 July 2018, one of the few remaining Sea King helicopters in the UK paid a visit to Thales’s Crawley site, to meet the people who helped to make this aircraft truly remarkable – not just at sea but on land, too. They’ve had an impressive history.
Defending those who defend us
In 2002, upgrades – including the powerful Thales Cerberus mission system – brought the aircraft to its most advanced version yet, with the ability to operate the radar in both surface and air modes simultaneously, to pass ‘contacts of interest’ to other aircraft or surface vessels, and to coordinate British and allied fighter aircraft.
Its final iteration, ‘Sea King Mk7 Airborne Surveillance and Control’ distinguished itself with force protection during the Gulf War, the Balkans, Lebanon, and Libya, and in anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.
Between 2009 and 2014, during ‘Operation Herrick’ in Afghanistan, it contributed to the seizure of 40 tonnes of drugs, 173 tonnes of explosives and around 20,000 rounds of ammunition, as well as the detainment of many suspected insurgents, providing the essential ‘eyes’ for the land force commander during 2,000 sorties and more than 9,000 flying hours.
Matt Avison OBE, who commanded of the Sea King Force and led it to Afghanistan, said: “Before we landed Sea Kings in Afghanistan, our knowledge of what was moving on the ground – narcotics, explosives, weapons and so on – was extremely limited. We changed that.”
“The Sea Kings, which now had the most powerful radar systems of any helicopter in the world, made a huge difference. Suddenly, we could see anything that moved - and help people to do something about it.”
The eyes and ears of the future
Time moves on and everything changes in time. The much-loved, long-lived helicopter has saved countless lives in times of conflict and in times of peace. Today, the Royal Navy is already working with the next generation of Airborne Early Warning systems: the Merlin Mk2 helicopter, equipped with the Crowsnest system powered by Thales’s Cerberus technology.
Matt Avison now holds a senior position at Thales and continues to play a key role in making sure that our armed forces are equipped and trained for the tasks they face every day. “The role of the Sea King will be passed to the Merlin Mk2 over the next few years, as part of the Royal Navy’s Crowsnest programme,” he said.
“The Merlin is a superior aircraft. Once it is equipped with the very latest Cerberus mission systems - including enhanced target identification, an autonomous artificial intelligence-based tracking system and touch screen technology – it will provide a game-changing capability.”
The Merlin Crowsnest’s primary role will be to serve with the new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers and they are expected to be in service for many years to come. But whatever the mission, at times of peace and during conflicts; wherever the Royal Navy is saving lives and protecting our nation’s interests, Thales will always be there to support it.