Australian Super Seasprites to fly again?

In the latter half of this decade the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) will almost certainly have seven vessels which could and should embark a ship’s helicopter.

12th Jun 2012

Australian Super Seasprites to fly again?

Byline: Geoff Slocombe / Victoria


In the latter half of this decade the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) will almost certainly have seven vessels which could and should embark a ship’s helicopter.  But the RNZN only has five SH-2G(NZ) Seasprite naval combat helicopters available to it. This makes it very difficult to embark them on more than two ships at any one time because of heavy maintenance requirements.


The usual multiplier of helicopter fleet size to ship numbers is just under three to one.  In other words, to have the ability to embark seven helicopters simultaneously, the RNZN would ideally require twenty helicopters.


However, typically only three or four of the RNZN ships would be deployed to sea at any one time, so the requirement is more like ten or eleven helicopters.  Where to get more?  Kaman has not built any new Super Seasprites for ten years, since the ones they built for New Zealand.


What about the eleven SH-2G(A) helicopters which had an ill-fated history in Australia before the contract was paid out and terminated in 2008?  They were refurbished 1960s and 1980s airframes with a new upper fuselage section to bring them to as-new condition with a 10,000 hour service life certified by the US Navy. The whole fleet only did about 1600 hours in very limited RAN service.  These are now described by Kaman as SH-2G(I), for International, variants.  With some modifications to match SH-2G(NZ) weapons specifications, could they be sold by Kaman, who now have the right to sell them, to NZ Defence?


New Zealand is currently investigating that possibility.


When interviewed by APDR for this article, Des Ashton, Deputy Secretary, Acquisitions Division, NZ MOD said "The NZ government has authorised the Ministry of Defence to enter negotiations with Kaman to determine whether the SH-2G(I) opportunity might provide a value for money solution to New Zealand's future maritime helicopter needs. However, no investment decisions have been made by Government at this stage and any recommendation resulting from the current process would require Cabinet approval. "


RNZN Fleet 2016 onwards


In the latter half of this decade the RNZN fleet which can operate helicopters will consist of two ANZAC frigates, one amphibious support ship, and two offshore patrol vessels. Although the Government has not yet taken firm decisions on two replacements to existing vessels, one supply ship with amphibious support capability and one littoral warfare ship are likely to be included in the fleet, each with a ship’s helicopter.


The RNZAF’s NH-90s will only be able to operate off the amphibious support ship HMNZS CANTERBURY (4) and possibly the HMNZS ENDEAVOUR replacement supply ship (1 or 2).  All seven ships will be able to operate the SH-2G(NZ) and carry AW 109 LUH helicopters.


To provide planned capability, each of the seven ships should have a Seasprite helicopter embarked whenever they are deployed.


The current NZ Defence Capability Plan has programmed upgrading or replacing the existing Super Seasprites around 2015.  If the eleven SH-2G(I) helicopters are bought from Kaman, the existing five NZ Seasprites could be sold as a fleet, or broken down for spares since they have common turbine engines, transmissions, rotor blades, etc..


What went wrong with the SEA 1411 Seasprite contract?


A combination of factors was responsible for the ultimate cancellation of the Australian Seasprite contract in 2008.  Although the SH-2G(A) Super Seasprites did fly for a short time in between groundings, the fleet only ever reached the stage of providing very limited aircrew and ground crew training with no tactical operational tests at all.


Four factors are thought to be responsible.  Firstly the RAN wanted a ‘ship killer’ standoff missile and chose the Kongsberg Penguin Mark 2, also used as standard on USN S-70 Seahawks.  Secondly, the RAN wanted a redesigned and redeveloped glass cockpit that could reduce the aircrew from three to two.  Thirdly the economics were helped by the plan for Australia to have a joint Offshore Patrol Combatant (OPC) program with Malaysia.  Finally, it was planned to operate the same helicopter on both ANZAC frigates and OPCs.


What happened?


The Kongsberg Penguin Mark 2 missiles were acquired and just one per aircraft was fitted for trials.  This affected the stability of the helicopter with the single 385 kg missile loaded on one side.  The plan was to go to two missiles per aircraft but this was not achieved.


The Integrated Tactical Avionics System (ITAS) to support a two man, instead of three man, aircrew and the new all-digital Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS) had major problems in software development and certification.  The AFCS, with a lack of resilience through having no redundant systems, had an un-nerving habit of very occasional ‘hard-overs’ where the AFCS would suddenly drive the controls in an un-planned direction, necessitating pilot ‘hands-on’ to correct the flight attitude.  With only a two person aircrew, the pilot could be distracted dealing with other sensor inputs while the AFCS was flying the helicopter.  Imagine that pilot suddenly sensing a ‘hard over’ while hovering or flying about 50 metres above the sea.  His reaction time would give him little chance of recovering before the helicopter hit the water.  This is not a problem with NZ Super Seasprites because they don’t have the same avionics and they are always flown with a 3 man crew, with the pilot concentrating solely on flying the aircraft.


The OPC agreement with Malaysia didn’t get off the ground, leaving Australia with an ‘orphan’ project.  Finally the ANZAC frigates were deemed to require a more capable helicopter than the OPCs.


Anyone interested in reading more details of the Australian experience should Google ANAO Audit Report No.41 2008–09 The Super Seasprite.


The NZ Seasprite Fleet


The RNZN was also attracted to the Super Seasprite, especially as the SH-2G model had largely the same sensor fit as the US Navy’s SH-60 Seahawks.


New Zealand ordered four aircraft in 1997, then exercised its option to acquire a fifth in 1999, at an under-budget cost of $NZ 326 million.  SH-2Fs were supplied in the interim as the SH-2G(NZ) aircraft did not start to enter RNZN service until 2001, with deliveries completed in 2003. New Zealand’s helicopters are equipped with the baseline Telephonics APS-143 radar and forward-looking infra red (FLIR) AN/AAQ-22 thermal imager for surveillance, with Litton Amacon LR-100 ESM for passive surveillance and self-protection. The analogue cockpit is based on the Litton ASN-150 tactical navigation system. They are armed with AGM-65 Maverick missiles for anti-surface vessel operations. 


These current aircraft do not have the ITAS and AFCS which caused so much trouble in Australia.


The RNZAF recently acquired six SH-2F aircraft for maintenance training at their Ground Training Wing, Woodbourne Air Base.


Maintenance issues reduce availability


A 2011 report by the NZ Ministry of Defence’s evaluation division wrote that because of compounding problems and the need to keep the helicopters flying, the military is constantly deferring "operational level maintenance". The report said while each individual deferral might be valid on its own, they were creating a "bow-wave of deferred maintenance".


"A significant number of deferrals related to the repair of corrosion or vibration damage discovered during checks," the report said. While cumulative deferral might be considered safe, the report said it was reasonable to assume the "damage will worsen the longer it is left".


The report concluded that regular operation of the Seasprite in a corrosive, salt-laden environment exacerbates maintenance issues.  Vibration damage worsens with flying hours rather than physical age.


These issues would be ameliorated by a larger fleet, with flying hours spread across all aircraft.


What happens next?


The NZ Super Seasprites cost $NZ 65 million each when new in 2001-2003, with the expectation they would remain in service for 25 years or 10,000 flying hours, whichever happened first.


Assuming they will be 70% depreciated by the time any SH-2G(I) Super Seasprites are purchased, they would have a residual value of around $NZ 20 million each, at most.  But they would not obtain this price if they were resold.  This sets an upper limit on Kaman’s maximum asking price for the eleven SH-2G(I) Super Seasprites.  A full motion simulator and a considerable inventory of spares are also available and would be included in the deal.


If NZ were offered all eleven helicopters and their spares at, say, $NZ 20 million each by Kaman, plus $NZ 10 million for the simulator, the total purchase contract price could be around $NZ 230 million ($A 180 million).  Despite what they may say, Kaman is basically stuck with these helicopters, the simulator and spares, so whatever they can get for them is a bonus, given that they received progress payments, then a contract termination payment, from Australia.    There will be a keen price negotiation if the project gets to this stage.


And it could also provide a pleasant surprise for Australia, since the contract termination agreement provided for any profits from resale of the helicopters to be shared between the Australian Government and Kaman Corporation.


If a satisfactory position can be reached, then NZ will have secured an appropriately sized fleet of maritime combat helicopters which should last, by rotating embarked units, until at least 2030.  It will also have mainly resolved the issue of long lead times and other difficulties in obtaining spares from Kaman.


A Kaman team visited NZ last month as part of the negotiation process. A combined NZMOD / NZDF team will visit Kaman in Connecticut in June. Discussion will cover a wide range of topics including through life support arrangements and software support


Defence Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman said “This isn’t a done deal, far from it. Officials need to be able to demonstrate that this is the right capability for New Zealand. There must be no question marks left around any performance issues. These are significant hurdles.”


“But it would be foolish of the New Zealand Government not to look seriously at an option that provides a technology our Air Force is already familiar with; from a country we are friends with, and at a price that may, because of the unusual circumstances, prove significantly more competitive than other options.”


Clearly there are still many issues to be investigated in depth and resolved before the New Zealand Government is in a position to make a firm commitment, but prospects look promising. 



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