The navy's AEW capability is provided by its Sea King ASaC7 (Airborne Surveillance and Control) fleet but will disappear with the retirement of the Sea Kings, scheduled for 2016.
The U.K. Defense Ministry's Planning Round 12, announced to Parliament in May, confirmed funding for a follow-on AEW system, formerly known as MASC (Maritime Airborne Surveillance Capability) but now designated Crow's Nest. The precise budget, timescale and requirement have not yet been settled, but both industry and the ministry expect to see two rival bids for the AEW capability, likely to be deployed on a Merlin helicopter.
Thales UK will offer a development of the existing Sea King's Cerberus mission system, while Lockheed Martin may pitch Vigilance, based on the F-35's Northrop Grumman radar. Both teams are expected to offer palletized systems. With in-service dates for the other elements of the carrier program still in flux, a palletized AEW system enables the ministry to avoid buying, staffing and operating the complete capability before the carrier and jets are ready.
Some people have suggested that the F-35 itself could perform the AEW role. “There is an awful lot of talk about whether the F-35 will be able to do everything, and how many you would need for it to be able to do everything,” says Lt. Cmdr. Simon Flynn, executive officer of the frontline SKASaC unit, 854 Naval Air Sqdn., who has also worked in the carrier strike team at navy command. “I've not seen all the data from F-35, but I know how carrier strike works and how the jets are integrated, and I know that the Americans firmly believe that they still need all the supporting assets, specifically the E-2D.”
As for inflight refueling, the current plan to use RAF assets will keep the carriers close to friendly host base— but the point of an aircraft carrier is that it is not tied to land bases. The U.S. Navy will use F/A-18s as tankers well into the 2030s, and there no plans for a “buddy store” refueling pod for the F-35. In any case, the jet's capability as a tanker (with only two “wet” stores stations) is limited.
The whole process hardly looks well-managed—too many decisions seem to have been made in 2010 that were not based on robust evidence. The about-face has cost close to £150 million as work undertaken to aid the conversion process has had to be scrapped. It now remains to be seen whether the “simpler” carrier can be delivered, as planned, to an earlier than planned timescale that will see the U.K. delivering naval fixed-wing aviation by 2019.