Two Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) helicopters, delivered through the Crowsnest programme, have been significantly upgraded with new software ahead of joining the Portsmouth-based flag ship which left the city’s naval base earlier this month to head north, leading a task group of partner nations and exercising her F-35 Lightning stealth fighters and Merlin helicopters.
Flying more than a mile above the carrier strike group, the ASaC aircraft use their radars, lowered underneath the fuselage in a domed bag – which earns them the nickname ‘Baggers’ in the rest of the rest of the Navy – to look ‘over the horizon’. The helicopters’ highly-trained crews look for possible air and surface threats – and can be used to coordinate defence and strike operations.
Commander Aidan Riley, who commands the Merlin Helicopter Force, said the system had received “considerable capability enhancements” since Crowsnest debuted on the carrier’s maiden deployment to the Pacific in 2021.
He continued: “The deployment of this year’s carrier strike group is a significant milestone for our ASaC capability. The helicopters and their crews are an integral part of Merlin Helicopter Force alongside our trusted and hugely experienced antisubmarine warfare experts.”
Each Merlin has a crew of three – one pilot and two observers (the tactical operators) from Cornwall-based 820 Naval Air Squadron. They are embarked alongside the ship’s complement of submarine hunting Merlins and anti-surface warfare Wildcat helicopters.
Commander Riley added: “We have an intensive aircrew training programme in place here at Culdrose which in the last couple of years has introduced a new generation of ‘baggers’ into the fleet.
"Operating from the carrier and her escorts, the men and women of 820 Naval Air Squadron present a formidable defence, protecting the carrier task group from possible threats above and below the water.”
Keith Bethell, Director Helicopters for Defence Equipment & Support which manages the Crowsnest Programme, said: “We have been working very closely with our industry partners and the Royal Navy to upgrade and mature Crowsnest since it was a key element of the maiden carrier strike group deployment in 2021.
“With mission system software improvements and the operational experience gained by Merlin crews on other deployments last year, it promises to be a valuable wide-area surveillance and threat reduction asset.”
As well as her Merlin and Navy Wildcat helicopters, HMS Queen Elizabeth's F35 jets have also landed on the aircraft carrier as well.