The Royal Navy’s unique airborne surveillance and control helicopters, known as ‘Baggers’, have recently deployed to Helmand for the first time, where they are detecting, following and intercepting insurgent activity.

The Mk7 helicopters are known as Baggers thanks to the large grey ‘bag’ which contains the aircraft’s state-of-the-art radar.

Primarily used in the maritime surveillance role, the helicopter’s powerful onboard sensors also enable it to provide valuable battlefield reconnaissance and targeting information at particular times in land operations, and in May this year Sea King Mk7s from 854 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) were deployed to Afghanistan.

The eye-in-the-sky Sea Kings have been around since the mid-80s, serving principally as airborne early warning. That role began to change when new radar, Searchwater 2000, was fitted at the beginning of the 21st century.

Designed to identify potential aerial targets, crews found the new radar system was also capable of tracking both maritime and land targets – as the helicopters demonstrated during the 2003 campaign to oust Saddam Hussein.

Back then, the ground role of the Baggers – in official military parlance SKASaC (pronounced ‘skayzac’) – was in its infancy. Six years down the line, those skills have been honed – and committed over Helmand in earnest for the first time.

After a month acclimatising to conditions in Camp Bastion and exercising with allied forces in theatre, the Baggers and support personnel from 854 NAS were sent aloft on missions from the middle of June onwards.

Commander Matt Avison, Commander Sea King Force, said:

“The job is to throw a light into areas which are regarded as a black hole – vast areas outside the ‘Green Zone’ in Helmand – and give the commanders on the ground an idea of what is going on. Almost every sortie has produced useful information and there have been many – and significant – results.”

Now it’s in theatre, SKASaC will be there for the foreseeable future; 854 NAS returns home this month with its sister squadron 857 trading places.

Lieutenant Commander Steve Lynch, 857 NAS’s Commanding Officer, said: “We are going out well prepared, well kitted out – you won’t hear any complaints from the lads and lasses about equipment. Most of the personnel are delighted to be doing a job that is operational.”

The Mk7s were fitted with a defensive aid suite, new engines and extra armour for their Afghan mission. In the coming months special rotor blades – already used by Jungly Sea Kings in theatre – will be added which will allow the Baggers to fly higher and longer.

The squadrons’ personnel have also been prepared for their new mission thoroughly, including some infantry training. Cdr Avison added:

“If you’re working alongside soldiers, it’s important that you’re not a dead weight on the ground. Whether you’re up in the air or on ground, you have to go through five weeks of training – and that’s how it should be.”

Aside from running around with SA80s, first 854 and now 857 NAS have undergone intensive training by day and night in the skies of Cornwall. That’s meant long, irregular hours, putting demands not merely on the Bagger community, but on the Culdrose community as well:

“Air traffic controllers, the logisticians getting all the kit ready, the galley working into the night to feed our guys – the support from everyone on the base has been fantastic. People have always said ‘what do you need?’,” said Cdr Avison.

If the response from the team at Culdrose has been heartening, then the feedback from commanders in Helmand has given air and ground crew a lift:

“For our men and women, this is a challenge – and I’ve been surprised by just how quickly we’ve shown we can shift from sea to land,” Cdr Avison added.

“Allied commanders in Afghanistan are really impressed with what we’ve achieved so far – no-one else in the world has the ability we have. Whatever the battlefield – land, sea or air – we can work in it, day or night, all weathers.”