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Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm review anno 2015

By:   Sander Meijering |

As a real maritime nation the United Kingdom has a large naval force. The Royal Navy consists of five branches. First of all there are three floating branches named the Surface Fleet, Submarine Fleet and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Besides that there are the Royal Marines and the Fleet Air Arm. This article contains an overview of today's Fleet Air Arm (FAA).

History
The Fleet Air Arm was founded in 1913 as the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS) to be the main flying branch of the navy. At the same time the army has its own flying branch known as the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The RFC was actually one year older than the RNAS. Both merged into the Royal Air Force in 1918 towards the end of the First World War. The Navy still got a strong influence in the RAF so in 1937 the Naval Air Branch (NAB) was formed. This air branch was renamed the Fleet Air Arm in 1939 when it became independent and under full command of the Navy. From then on the FAA became the major supplier of flying assets for the Royal Navy, which it still is today.

Structure and airfields
The main structure of the Fleet Air Arm consists of several flying squadrons and a few squadrons for support, maintenance and training. The main body of the FAA comes from all the flying units. An overview of today's squadrons including their home base and aircraft is given in the table below.

to RAF Barkston Heath
703 Naval Air Squadron Tutor T1
RAF Shawbury
705 Naval Air Squadron Squirrel HT1
RNAS Prestwick
771 Naval Air Squadron Sea King Mk5
RAF Benson
845 Naval Air Squadron Merlin Mk3
RNAS Yeovilton
727 Naval Air Squadron Tutor T1
815 Naval Air Squadron Lynx Mk8
825 Naval Air Squadron Wildcat HMA2
846 Naval Air Squadron Merlin Mk3
847 Naval Air Squadron Wildcat AH1
848 Naval Air Squadron Sea King Mk4
RNAS Culdrose
750 Naval Air Squadron Avenger T1
771 Naval Air Squadron Sea King Mk5
814 Naval Air Squadron Merlin Mk2
820 Naval Air Squadron Merlin Mk2
824 Naval Air Squadron Merlin Mk2
829 Naval Air Squadron Merlin Mk2
849 Naval Air Squadron Sea King ASaC7
736 Naval Air Squadron Hawk T1(A)
700X Naval Air Squadron ScanEagle UAV

Training
During their officer training at the Britannia Royal Navy College in Dartmouth, future pilot cadets are sent to Yeovilton to fly with 727 NAS for a short grading course. All pilots will fly 13 hours in the Tutor T1 aircraft for a grading course. The course will actually assess future pilots. After finishing the Navy College all pilots go to RAF Barkston Heath for their elementary flying training. At this airfield the Royal Navy and the Royal Army jointly train their pilots within the Defence Elementary Flying School. The 703 Naval Air Squadron together with the 674 Army Air Corps Squadron train young pilots their basis flying skills. All pilots start flying in the Tutor T1 training aircraft. After successfully completing the elementary training students will be streamed to helicopters, fixed wing or fast jet. Rotary wing training takes place at the Defence Helicopter Flying School at RAF Shawbury. There pilots are placed by either 705 Naval Air Squadron or 660 Army Air Corps Squadron where they receive their rotary wing training on the Squirrel HT1 helicopter. After finishing the course the helicopter pilots will be placed by the operational conversion units of the several naval squadrons with their specific aircraft. type.

The fixed wing pilots get a little different training path. Pilots for the Hawk jet or the future F-35 pilot's will continue their training in the RAF. After completing their elementary flying training they move to RAF Linton-on-Ouse to receive training on the Tucano. After that they move to RAF Valley for training on the Hawk T2 jet trainer. Another branch of fixed wing pilots will move to 750 Naval Air Squadron to fly the Avenger aircraft. The Avenger itself is used for training too. All navigators for both the fixed and rotary wing squadrons are trained on the Avenger.

Search and Rescue

One of the tasks of the Fleet Air Arm is Search and Rescue. Search and Rescue is performed by 771 Naval Air Squadron. This squadron flies with the Sea King Mk5 with its remarkable red and grey color scheme. 771 NAS operates from RNAS Prestwick in Scotland and RNAS Culdrose in the South West of England. Today the ageing Sea King is close to the end of its life. The SAR Sea King will be phased out in 2016 and will not be replaced. This means the Search and Rescue task for the Royal Navy comes to an end. All SAR duties will be taken over by the civil company Bristow Helicopter.

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The Merlin Mk4 will soon be replaced by the Merlin Mk3


Commando Helicopter Force
Another important task of the Fleet Air Arm is providing air assets for the Royal Marines. There are four squadrons working together in the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF). These squadrons are 845 Naval Air Squadron and 846 Naval Air Squadron flying the Merlin Mk3, 847 Naval Air Squadron flying the Wildcat and 848 Naval Air Squadron flying the Sea King Mk4. At this moment 845 Naval Air Squadron is not operational jet. The Squadron is currently stationed at RAF Benson where they took over all Royal Air Force Merlin helicopters as replacement for their old Sea Kings. When 845 NAS will be fully current on their new helicopter they move back to Yeovilton and take up their duties for the Commando Helicopter Force again.

Merlin Helicopter Force
The Merlin Helicopter Force is based at RNAS Culdrose. The force consist out of four squadrons, namely 814 Naval Air Squadron, 820 Naval Air Squadron, 824 Naval Air Squadron, and 829 Naval Air Squadron. All these squadrons operate the Merlin Mk2. The main role of the Merlin is to provide anti-submarine service to the fleet. Besides that the Merlin is a true frigate helicopter which can provide all kind of services to the fleet. Recently all Merlins have been upgraded to the Mk2 standard. This upgrade gives them better computers and makes them easier to operate. With this upgrade the Merlin will be the main Fleet Air Arm helicopter for the years to come.

Lynx Wildcat Maritime Force
The Lynx Wildcat Maritiem Force consists of two squadrons. The first is 815 Naval Air Squadron flying the Lynx Mk8 and the second 825 Naval Air Squadron flying the Wildcat. The Wildcat is actually a modern remake of the Lynx helicopter. At this moment 815 NAS still uses the Lynx helicopter but will very soon convert to the Wildcat too. Both aircraft are used in the classic maritime role mostly aboard of one of the smaller Her Majesty Ships at sea. The role of both helicopters is to provide air support during various maritime missions like counter narcotics, anti-piracy and many more.

Airborne Early Warning
A very special helicopter in the Fleet Air Arm is the Sea King ASaC7. ASaC is an abbreviation for Airborne Surveillance and Control. The Sea King ASaC7 is a special version of the Mk7 Sea King with a remarkable bulb on the side of the aircraft. This bulb houses an airborne search radar. During the Falklands War the lack of a good long range radar became visible. This led to a Sea King being fitted with such radar for long range reconnaissance. However the Sea King ASaC7 is a very useful aircraft but it's very close to the end of its live. To find a replacement for the Sea King the Navy started the Crowsnest program. The program will provide a special role kit to adapt the Merlin with the same airborne radar as the Sea King ASaC. Recently the Navy awarded the contract for supporting the kit which should be operational in 2018. The Sea King ASaC7 will then be phase out.

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At the moment the Hawk is the Royal Navy's only fast jet aircraft. This will change soon with the introduction of the F-35.

Fast Jets
A bit of a special branch in the Fleet Air Arm consists of 736 Naval Air Squadron and their Hawk jets. The Hawks are used for all kinds of training for the fleet. For example the jets can fly simulated attacks on naval vessels. The jets are also used to train fighter controllers and observers from the fleet. All together the jets provide very valuable training to the fleet.

Unmanned Aircraft
The Navy is slowly making its first steps in unmanned flying. Currently 700X Naval Air Squadron will convert to the unmanned Scan Eagle. The Scan Eagle is a rail launched unmanned reconnaissance aircraft which can fly fully autonomous. Due to its size it can be launched and recovered from every naval vessel and can so provide vital reconnaissance at sea.

Future
In the near future the Fleet Air Arm will see some major changes. The first one is already in progress which is the phasing out the last Sea King and Lynx helicopters. The Sea King will be replaced by the Merlin helicopter and the Lynx by an upgraded version of it called the Wildcat. With the remaining helicopters out of service the Fleet Air Arm will have a helicopter fleet which will likely last for the next 15-20 years.

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This Japanse Kawasaki P1 can be the future Maritime Patrol Aircraft of Great Britain

Furthermore the Navy still wants to acquire a maritime patrol aircraft. After phasing out the Nimrod in 2010, the Navy is still searching for a replacement. Recently the offer the P-8 Poseidon has been turned down. Besides the Poseidon there are other candidates like the Japanese Kawasaki P1, SC-130J Sea Herc, Casa C -295MP and the unmanned RQ-4 Ocean Hawk. A final decision has not been taken yet.

Another big change will be the comeback of aircraft carriers and the fighter jet in the Fleet Air Arm. The navy is currently construction two brand new carriers named the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales. The Queen Elizabeth will near its completion and is expected to start its sea trails in summer 2016 and will become fully operational in 2017. The Prince of Wales will follow after the completion of the Queen Elizabeth. Together with the new carriers some new aircraft will arrive. In 2016 the F-35 Lightning II will become operational with 809 Naval Air Squadron. The F-35B will become the navy main fighter jet for carrier operations. Along with the F-35 the navy is still in search for a new Airborne Early Warning Aircraft. There are still many types in the race like the EH-101, V-22 Osprey and the E2-C Hawkeye. However it is not likely the navy makes a decision soon. All these changes will give the FAA an even bigger role within the Royal Navy and make sure they are up to their task in the years to come.