Since the Sea King Mk 7 was retired in 2018 (and many of us enjoyed an epic evening at BRNC), I have been able to call on a small, dedicated and talented team to manage Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC) until the CROWSNEST Programme delivers the Merlin ASaC. We have been doing that proudly under the 849 banner and the esteemed history that our forebearers have laid for us. Keeping a focus on a warfighting task with as many touch-points as ASaC has certainly been fun. We've drawn support from across the board, not least our Combat Air colleagues in the Lightning Force, future Operational Commanders and our United States Navy and Marine Corps friends. I am personally quick to remind anyone that will listen about the need to focus on the Strike element of Carrier Strike and not just the essential Force Protection that enables it. At the risk of sounding like a yesteryear train spotter, we are getting there! The programme has its challenges but Merlin ASaC will be ready for the inaugural operational deployment of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH and the Carrier Strike Group - and that is what matters.
Squeezing 849 and ASaC into the Merlin Helicopter Force was always going to test what the market could bear and on 20 Apr 2020, I was instructed to decommission 849 in favour of placing both our Carrier Strike ASaC and ASW capabilities in 820 NAS. After the Normandy torpedo bomber missions that saw 849 win its first battle honour in April 1944 with the Avenger I, 849 and 820 have a venerable history of working closely together. As No.2 Naval Strike Wing in VICTORIOUS in 1944, 820 and 849 (now with Avenger IIs) conducted Naval Strikes on Sumatran Oil Refineries at Pangkalan Brandon and Palembang during January 1945 gaining East Indies and Palembang Battle Honours. In March, the Squadron participated in a series of strikes on shore targets in the Sakishima Islands (winning its Okinawa Battle Honour) and Formosa. A month before VJ day, 849 conducted a series of similar attacks on the Japanese mainland in the Tokyo area, gaining its Japan Battle Honour. 849 recovered home from Australia in VICTORIOUS, disbanding on arrival on 31 Oct 1945.
Most readers will remember 849 for its unique Airborne Early Warning role though. From the 1952 Skyraider AEW I to the Gannet Mk3 in 1960 -1978, and then in to rotary wing with the Sea King Mk 2 and 7 from the early 80s to recent times, 849 and 820 have been found in many RN carriers over the years. I grew up in 849 B Flight with 820 (Sea King Mk 6) in ILLUSTRIOUS and will always recall a reassuring presence of my friendly Pinger drinking colleagues. On one memorable occasion in 'Anyface Tango,' I had declared a PAN after losing a discussion with 'F' about OUTHOUSE, Mum’s position relative to it, and our total endurance. I calmed down somewhat after a Dolphin callsign popped up with a simple, understated yet hugely reassuring "shepherd" call. As I was reassured back then, I wanted to pass on the recent reassurance that I have received that ASaC remains at the very centre of the Navy's Carrier Strike plans, and also that we have some very talented and experienced ASaC people to take it forward.
Deputy Director Naval Aviation, Cdre Ade Orchard is also the Senior Responsible Owner for the CROWSNEST Programme. He speaks about the central role of ASaC in our QEC-centred Carrier Strike Groups and the partnership that will be made between the F-35B and the Merlin ASaC. The ASaC team are getting ever-closer to the F-35 programme and now with an RN CO of 617 Sqn - the first operational Lightning squadron, familiar synergies are set for the Carrier Air Wing. The addition of the US Marine Corps F-35B, 211 Sqn next year, and the rest of the task group is I think, genuinely exciting for us all, but particularly so for ASaC after long periods of operations from ashore with less frequent forays back to sea for Op ELLAMY in 2011 and during Op KIPION from 2014-18. The ASaC Senior Observer of 820 NAS has plenty of recent embarked experience in QUEEN ELIZABETH and has developed the ASaC relationships with the CSG staff and 'AW' in our Type 45 Destroyers. This is an important part of executing the acknowledged 3 elements of ASaC:
· Airborne Tactical Command and Control (Air Battle Management);
· Force Protection Surveillance (the 'AEW bit'); and,
· Air Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (the clever exploitation bit post-mission)
So, while it is with great personal sadness that I have been directed to decommission 849 NAS, the importance of ASaC is understood, well prepared for and remains a sea of opportunity for the people charged with executing it. Unfortunately the current social distancing policy prevents us from marking the occasion in the traditional manner, so instead I hope that all those with affinity towards the ‘Anyface’ community refresh their contact details with me or Serena direct or at email@example.com so that the next reunion can be a lively affair of Skyraider, Gannet, Sea King and now Merlin sisters and brothers. I have been successfully lobbied for an 'out of sync' Anyface reunion to mark the arrival of Merlin ASaC and I think the most persuading factor for my friend in Command of 820 with 849 A-flight vintage, will be the weighty membership from across the AEW and ASaC generations.