Crowsnest, the most advanced aerial early-warning sensor ever built for the navy, has been beset by technical gremlins for almost 18 months.
The £269m surveillance platform – which fits to a Merlin helicopter – will act as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, warning them of deadly threats ‘over the horizon’.
But the tech has been blighted by delays so severe there were fears it wouldn’t be ready in time for £3.2bn flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth’s first operational deployment in May.
Now leaders behind the project have revealed to The News the hi-tech radar is back on track and ready to deploy after a herculean effort by aeronautical experts during lockdown.
Nathan Colbern, deputy programme director for Merlin at defence firm Lockheed Martin, oversees Crowsnest and said three ‘production aircraft’ fitted with the radar were ‘available now’.
The 48-year-old from Fareham said: ‘We knew we had problems with the programme and had to dig deep.
‘I’m immensely proud of the team. The number of people and the number of hours being worked and lack of leave – people have literally thrown their all into this to get us to where we are.’
As revealed by The News in January 2020, the system was reportedly ‘too sensitive’ to be used effectively, with software difficulties reported before Christmas 2019.
In July, Parliament’s powerful public accounts committee – which oversees Whitehall spending – lamented at the costs of the carrier project and raised their concerns about Crowsnest.
But as politicians in parliament were expressing their fears about ‘big problems’ in the defence project, engineers at Yeovilton, where Crowsnest was being tested, were hard at work.
Among them was Luke Donaldson-Jones, who works as a senior flight test engineer at Lockheed Martin’s HQ in Havant.
The 31-year-old was forced to fly with crews five or six hours a day throughout lockdown wearing oxygen masks and protective kit to gather test data.
Speaking of the project nearing completion, he said: ‘It almost doesn't feel real. It has been such a slog. I don’t know how to describe it.
‘It’s been 18 months where everyone has just dug deep, thrown themselves at it and done what they needed to do to get the data there.
‘The day the Crowsnest aircraft will head out to the carrier will be a massive day for the whole team.’
Lockheed Martin was the prime contractor responsible for the overall design and development of Crowsnest, supported by Thales, and helicopter firm Leonardo.
The system is due to move from Yeovilton to the Ministry of Defence’s Boscombe Down aircraft testing facility in Wiltshire in the coming weeks before it is expected to join the Royal Navy in service.
HMS Queen Elizabeth is currently at sea undergoing a brief work up. She is expected to return to Portsmouth shortly before heading off on exercise in Scotland in April and then deploying in May.
The 65,000-tonne warship’s mission will see her leading Europe’s ‘most powerful’ naval task group through the Mediterranean, the Gulf and into the Indo-Pacific.