Vigilance control system set to be tested on Merlin helicopter

Lockheed Martin UK is readying its new airborne surveillance and control system for testing on the Merlin Mark II helicopter, which will enter Royal Navy service later in the year.

Dubbed Vigilance, the system pod incorporates advanced radar, sensors and data processing to perform a range of tasks such as the early warning of air threats, anti-submarine warfare and co-ordinating fighter jet response among other capabilities.

Vigilance was developed by Lockheed Martin as a low-cost plug-and-play system partly in response to the UK’s ‘maritime patrol gap’ left after the scrapping of Nimrod, a dedicated patrol aircraft.

‘It is open architecture, which basically means you can plug in a whole heap of new sensors, equipment, weapons and communications through one heart that is the mission system — what we’ve called Vigilance,’ David Stanton, business development manager at Lockheed Martin, told The Engineer.

Lockheed Martin UK was awarded the £750m contract by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to sustain the capability of the Royal Navy’s multi-mission Merlin helicopter in 2006. The need has become more acute, however, after the next-generation Nimrod MRA4 due to be built by BAE Systems was cancelled in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010. Indeed, a Commons Select Defence Committee report published just last month, entitled Future Maritime Surveillance, highlighted several key vulnerabilities.

‘It’s a cross-government concern rather than being just one for the MoD,’ said Stanton. ‘If you think of the UK being an island, and the threats associated with being surrounded by the maritime arena, you’ve got terrorists that could use the sea to their advantage, illegal fishermen and that whole surveillance of what’s going in around the territorial waters.’

The Merlin Mark II equipped with Vigilance will bridge part of that capability gap. It would be launched from aircraft carriers, certain frigates or destroyers and occasionally land bases to provide force protection for the navy’s maritime task group.

This includes anti-submarine warfare and the early airborne warning of high- and low-flying enemy aircraft that are attacking land, air or sea targets as well as air-to-surface and surface-to-surface missiles. Vigilance also provides data linking to command centres on ships and land to co-ordinate, for example, fighter response.

The prototype system is currently being prepared for trials at the MoD’s Boscombe Down aircraft testing site in Wiltshire and will be delivered to the navy towards the end of the year, reaching full operational capability around 2014.

Lockheed Martin is also looking at equipping other aircraft, such as the C-130 Hercules turboprop military transport aircraft, with Vigilance to give them additional maritime patrol capabilities. With the ability to hold four Sting Ray torpedoes and sonobuoys, the modified C-130s would provide additional anti-submarine capabilities.

The company also plans to export the technology to various clients and armed forces around the world.

‘If a customer wants to have, let’s say, an airborne early-warning capability but can’t afford to buy a dedicated platform, what he can do is buy a roll-on, roll-off system that he can fit and adapt to his own existing aircraft, be it a transporter or a helicopter. What we try to do when we come up with a solution is not cut into his aircraft unnecessarily,’ said Stanton.