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New Royal Navy Wildcat helicopters can't transmit vital data

Crews have to land and move tactical info around via USB sticks. No, really

Britain's latest military helicopter fleet has still not had a tactical data link capability fitted, two years after the aircraft entered service.

Although the new Leonardo Wildcat helicopters have already been deployed operationally aboard Royal Navy warships, including deployments as the sole helicopter aboard frigates patrolling overseas, they do not have a tactical data link (TDL) capability allowing them to transmit data to other units.

Instead, crews must use a USB stick after landing to transfer data collected by the Wildcat's radar and camera systems to its host ship. The only other alternative, at present, is for the crew to call out contacts over the radio by voice – just as Fleet Air Arm observers did during the Second World War.

Air International magazine reported in its February issue that although Wildcat HMA2s are fitted with the Bowman secure voice radio system, the helicopters still lack the TDL capability fitted to other frontline naval and military helicopters such as the Merlin and Puma.

Lieutenant Commander Anthony Johnson of 825 Naval Air Squadron told the magazine: "At present, we have to download everything our systems produce on to some form of media and present this when we land. We cannot currently transfer this data electronically whilst airborne, so we continue to use voice communication."

The magazine commented: "An uplink is considered essential for preparation of the battlefield, analysing patterns of life and delivering a kinetic effect in a littoral situation if required" – meaning smiting Her Majesty's enemies at sea after first making sure no innocent passers-by will get caught in the crossfire.

The Wildcat is fitted with a modern radar and electro-optical sensor suite, with the Seaspray 7400E radar including air-to-air, air-to-ground and air-to-surface modes. The Wescam electro-optical system, mounted in a turret on the helicopter's nose, can capture hi-res stills and video and also includes a laser range-finding capability – such as would be used in conjunction with the TDL.

The vital data link capability was deleted in 2008 as part of a cost-cutting exercise by the Ministry of Defence. At the same time, the total number of helicopters on order was cut from 70 to 62, along with a host of other vital capabilities, in the infamous phrase "fitted for but not with".

The export version of the Wildcat is fitted with a Link 16-compatible TDL.

The Ministry of Defence insists its £178bn equipment programme will create thousands of jobs over the next few years.

The Wildcat HMA2 helicopter, built by the company formerly known as Westland, is the replacement for the venerable Lynx helicopter flown by the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm and the Army Air Corps. ®

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