Royal Navy’s submarine-hunting Merlin helicopters recently left the flight deck of aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth for three weeks of exercises at the US Navy’s Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC).
The ranges off Andros Island – south-west of Nassau – are centered on a natural phenomenon, the Tongue of the Ocean, a huge deep-water bowl carved out of coral reef.
It’s 20 miles wide, 150 miles long, some 6,000ft deep in places and crammed with sensors and hydrophones to record reams of data on how well a submarine, torpedo or sonar is performing.
The Merlins – based at Culdrose in Cornwall – last used AUTEC in 2008, since when the helicopter has been substantially upgraded, making it a much more potent submarine hunter.
That said, the team at the Royal Navy’s Maritime Warfare Centre at HMS Collingwood, want to develop new tactics and methods to ensure Merlin maintains its position as a world-leader in anti-submarine warfare.
With HMS Queen Elizabeth conducting fast jet trials off the east coast of the USA, the Merlins flew down from Virginia to the Bahamas where a program of tests was laid on for them as aircrew tried to hunt down unmanned underwater targets – mimicking the characteristics of real submarines.
Merlin carries sonobuoys – automated listening devices dropped across the anticipated path a submarine might take – as well as a ‘dipping’ sonar, lowered into the ocean when those sonobuoys pick up a potential contact.
“AUTEC is a fantastic opportunity to really put the aircraft through its paces,” said 820 Squadron’s senior pilot Lieutenant Commander Steve Moseley.
“The trials were invaluable in ensuring that the Merlin remains a world-beating anti-submarine aircraft and, in concert with the technical expertise of our colleagues from the Maritime Warfare Centre, we are able to ensure that it continues to be for many years to come.”
“The tactical trials have been a huge success. The Merlin Mk2 has proven it possesses a world-leading anti-submarine warfare capability,” said Commander Russell Clark, senior carrier strike/aviation staff officer at the Maritime Warfare Center.
“The first-class support from 820 Naval Air Squadron’s aircrew and engineers resulted in a successful series of trials and period of tactical development.”
After the exercise, Merlins and supporting personnel returned to HMS Queen Elizabeth which concluded her F-35B trials for this year and will return home to Portsmouth in time for Christmas.