Skip to content
Recruiting now.Explore navy careers

Merlin magic hunts down ‘enemy’ submarines in NATO war games

7 November 2018
The Navy’s premier submarine hunters are fully honed in their art of war after a two-week workout in icy waters.

Two Merlin Mk2 helicopters joined frigates HMS Northumberland and Westminster as part of NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise off Norway.

Their mission, in tandem with the frigates which are also dedicated sub hunters, was to ‘protect’ a task group of more than half a dozen ships, especially flagship USS Iwo Jima, from underwater attack.

After mustering in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, the force headed for the main exercise area in the Norwegian Sea to the north of Trondheim.

Trident Juncture has provided the flight with an excellent opportunity to put into practice a lot of the skills we covered during operational sea training.

Chief Petty Officer Andrews

After getting used to working in temperatures which regularly fell below zero, the engineers readied the two helicopters from 814 Naval Air Squadron, aka the Flying Tigers, for sorties by day and night as they sought to detect and deter ‘enemy’ submarines.

Not long into the exercise, the ships came up against their first live submarine from the host nation, Norway.

This submarine was operating in its backyard, making use of the ‘water space’, such as knowledge of temperature and salinity, to try to outwit sonar operators.

HMS Northumberland’s Merlin was frequently launched late at night and disappeared into the darkness to locate, track and prosecute the ‘enemy’.

The Merlins are equipped with sonobuoys, listening devices typically dropped into the ocean in a pattern across the likely path a submarine might take, and the even-more-accurate ‘flash sonar’.

The latter is lowered or ‘dipped’ with the Merlin in a hover. Once in the water, Petty Officer (Aircrewman) Elton Dobson monitoring the display in the back of the helicopter immediately got a ‘sniff’ of a contact.

He had to work hard to regain and hold the contact, which was clearly using its knowledge of the oceanography in the area to try to evade the Merlin, but soon the classification rose and the command team gave their consent: Weapons free.

Two simulated attacks later, with the enemy neutralised, the Merlin could return to her floating home. 

Alongside their anti-submarine role, the Merlins have been called upon as general ‘buses of the sky’, flying personnel and kit around the numerous ships in the NATO task group, such as the force’s flagship, American assault ship USS Iwo Jima, a hybrid aircraft-helicopter carrier and amphibious assault ship, slightly smaller than our own Queen Elizabeth class.

“It is really good to prove our ability to operate with our closest allies and Exercise Trident Juncture has done just that, showing that we can operate from a foreign amphibious ship such as the Iwom Jima,” said Lt Ross Wiltshire, one of Northumberland’s two Merlin pilots.

“Landing on such a big flight deck, after flying from the Royal Navy’s smallest, was quite a contrast but is definitely a career highlight for me.”

Meanwhile, back on Northumberland’s deck, the engineering team worked exceptionally hard in the freezing, wind-swept conditions to keep the aircraft serviceable.

“Trident Juncture has provided the flight with an excellent opportunity to put into practice a lot of the skills we covered during operational sea training,” explained Chief Petty Officer (Air Engineering Technician) ‘Jules’ Andrews, Northumberland’s Senior Maintenance Rating.

“The flight engineers have shown throughout the exercise that we can operate at a high standard from the flight deck of a frigate, working long shifts in very arduous conditions.”

Commander Sarah Birchett, 814’s Commanding Officer, is delighted by the workout the NATO exercise has given her air and ground teams.

“It’s provided an excellent opportunity for the two ships’ flights to practise their seagoing skills – both airborne and as fully-involved members of the ships’ company; from conducting fire-fighting and damage control to racing to get the helicopters airborne to counter the underwater threat, all whilst working alongside our NATO allies.

“And all of this done within the beautiful, but cold, waters of the glorious Norwegian coastline.”

Related articles

Navy News Magazine

We bring you the latest news, features and award-winning photographs from the front-line. Navy News has been reporting on all that happens in the Royal Navy and its wider community since 1954.