We are, of course, referring to the Army’s venerable Blackhawks and the Navy’s Seahawks, which are twins from the one parent – the United States manufacturer, Sikorsky.
6th May 2009
We are, of course, referring to the Army’s venerable Blackhawks and the Navy’s Seahawks, which are twins from the one parent – the United States manufacturer, Sikorsky. Now around 22 years old, the Seahawks are suffering from advanced decay and are in need of major surgery – and the Blackhawks are distinctly creaky. The old ladies are also both in need of major technology implants if they are to soldier on for another ten or so years in the ever-developing complexities of the military environment until new aircraft are brought into service, despite the zeal with which their carers look after them and their attendant expense.
The question is: should Defence make a very large investment in the two old ladies when spending on their replacements have been committed? The answer to this dilemma is hopefully in the still-to-be-released Defence White Paper and it will be all to do with timing of the exit of the old helicopters and the introduction of the new. But it is worth noting that similar situations arise continuously in Defence where the Australian Defence Force [ADF] is obliged to “soldier on,” “fly on” or “sail on” with the assets it has had in service for too long, while it proposes to buy equipment replacements early enough to avoid the upgrade and life-of-type costs of the old kit.
The design and development of these two aircraft goes back 44 years and yet they are still being upgraded, because of a fundamentally sound design that includes survivability, role adaptability and ruggedness. The current United States UH-60M/MH60-Rs are very complex aircraft, particularly their avionics, and they are planned to be operational until well into the 2020s.
The following briefly describes the evolution of the S-70A-9 Blackhawk and S-70B-2 Seahawk from the original requirement for a Utility Tactical Transport Aircraft [UTTAS]:-
The Blackhawks have been used throughout their career as general purpose utility aircraft and not as a weapon platform. However, their use in Middle East conflicts and Afghanistan mandated the installation of electronic warfare self-protection systems and countermeasures, provided through the Echidna project, and the addition of weapons.
The Seahawks were specified to fulfil anti submarine warfare [ASW], anti-surface ship warfare [ASUW] and fleet defence roles operating from the FFGs, and later the Anzacs when the Seasprite program failed to mature. To meet these roles the aircraft were equipped in Australia with the then MEL Super Searcher X-band radar, mounted under the hull of the aircraft, the CAE AN/AQS-504 MAD (magnetic anomaly detector), AN/SSQ-81 Barra Buoys with onboard processing and the capability to carry and launch Penguin or Sea Skua IR-homing anti-ship missiles. Operationally, the Seahawks are an intrinsic part of the ship’s combat system, but with an independent role capability if required.
Seahawks were used in the Gulf War and the AN/AAQ-16 forward-looking infrared [FLIR] and the AN/AAR-47 missile warning system [MWS] were installed, the latter to provide a self-defence capability. The AN/AAQ-16 FLIR is controlled by the aircrew. It uses a cooled 3-5 micron Indium antimonide staring FPA, and is mounted beneath the cockpit front window on a stabilised gimbal to provide passive surveillance, detection of surface and air targets in the forward arc of the aircraft. The FLIR is the primary sensor for the detection and tracking of a target, and initial aiming of the Penguin and Sea Skua. The unit is also capable of integrating a laser target designator for the Hellfire missile launch (not in the RAN inventory). The AN/AAR-47 is a contemporary passive E-O MWS that comprises four discrete sensors mounted on the quadrants of the aircraft skin to provide near full azimuth and elevation coverage. The sensors independently detect incoming threats and provide outputs to a signal processor that outputs analog video to the aircrew, enabling cueing of the companion AN/ALE-39 countermeasures dispenser that discharges broadband optical flares.
An upgraded version of the AAR-47, incorporating a laser warner capability was developed and this version was referred to as ATAS (advanced tactical sensor). It is not known whether the RAN Seahawks are fitted with ATAS.
The evolution from the UH-60 to the MH-60 has been progressive over many years. Extensive planned upgrades as new, different, complex operational environments emerged and new advantageous techniques and technologies were developed by industry to improve the performance of avionics and mission systems. The application of COTS had a dramatic impact on development costs, development time and availability. The MH-60R is the latest United States beneficiary of this evolution and the benefits have been applied in every aspect of this aircraft.
Perhaps the most significant evidence of the evolution of the MH-60R is the fact that it is “more multi-role” than ever before. This is due in no small measure to the development of hardware and an embedded suite of software that contains all of the many applications software modules that characterise the operations and capabilities of the aircraft. Thus the mode of operation and the required capabilities of an aircraft are selected by the pilot to match his mission.
Defence has recognised that the existing fleet of its medium helicopters is aging and is too diverse. In many respects, two aircraft types (or a single type adapted for land and maritime roles) will be able to meet the range of operational requirements imposed on them by the Army and the Navy and higher defence commands.
There are a number of programs in place that address upgrades to extend the life and capability of certain of the helicopters now in service, pending the introduction into service of new helicopters to replace them. This process is not like turning on and off a light switch and there are aspects of it that might be affected by the yet to be issued new Defence White Paper.
The core objective of this Master Plan is to achieve optimal rationalisation of the ADF’s helicopter fleet, and at the same time address all aspects of the required operational capabilities of the aircraft, their operating and support infrastructure, including training facilities.
It is not known whether AIR 9000 will subsume a number of existing projects, or whether the Master Plan will provide an “umbrella” for them.
Projects examined in this article that are likely to be referenced to the Master Plan include:-
1. Eurocopter NH-90 (MRH-90)
This twin engined aircraft incorporates a totally new airframe design with about 90% of it produced using composites. The composite structure confers an extended life and is more economical to produce in large numbers than an all-metal airframe, but might be less economical than an all-metal airframe when major repairs are required, except repair by replacement.
The NH-90 design was base-lined on a NATO specification for a tactical troop (20 troops) version and a naval frigate [NF] version, with the NF version providing ASW/ASUW capabilities from a frigate-sized warship. There is significant commonality in the design of these two aircraft and also with the Tiger. Normally equipped with a majority of European equipment, there are 495-507 firm and 60 options from 14 other countries for the NH-90.
The MRH-90 is the RAN designation for the NH-90 (NF).
NH-90 (MRH-90) Roles. The primary roles of the NH-90 (NFH) are to provide autonomous ASW and ASUW operating from a warship. For the ASW role, the NH-90 carries active dipping sonar, sonobuoy launch and sonobuoy processing. In the ASUW role, the helicopter is capable of detection, tracking, classification, identification and attack of hostile ships, and has an (altitude dependent) over-the-horizon capability. Secondary roles include anti-air warfare [AAW], vertical replenishment [VERTREP], search and rescue [SAR], troop transport and mine laying. Typical data for the NH-90 includes:-
2. Sikorsky MH-60R
This twin-engined variant is the latest to be produced for the US Navy, US Marine Corps and US Army. The MH-60R incorporates all the lessons learned in equipment and airframe performance from the many earlier versions of the MH-60 over the last 20 years by United States and international users. COTS-based automated processes are widely used to reduce aircrew workload and improve accuracy of systems’ operation. The MH60R is available for land and maritime use and is optimised for littoral warfare operations. A particular feature of the MH-60R is its damage tolerance to small arms and medium calibre explosive projectiles. The airframe is mainly all metal, with composites being used in lower stress areas. The latest technology surface treatment of metal surfaces in the maritime version reduces corrosion. More than 600 Seahawks of various models and variants are in world-wide service.
The MH-60R was first delivered in August 2005, completed its OPEVAL in October 2005 and entered full-scale production in April 2006. Under its Helicopter Master Plan the US Navy plans to have 252 MH-60Rs operational by 2015.
The aircraft remains available as an export version, allowing customers the choice of electronic systems, and in Australia’s case the availability of advanced systems of United States origin is likely.
The primary roles of the MH-60R multi-mission helicopter are to provide autonomous ASW and ASUW operations when operating from a warship. For the ASW role, the MH-60R carries an active dipping low frequency sonar, active and passive sonobuoy launch and sonobuoy processing. In the ASUW role, the helicopter is capable of detection, tracking, classification, identification and attack of hostile ships, and has an (altitude dependent) over-the-horizon capability. Secondary roles include AAW, VERTREP (when the helicopter deploys a 2,721kg cargo winch), SAR, troop transport, mine laying, naval gunfire support, communications relay and logistics support.
Typical data for the MRH-60R includes:-
The complete program for the replacement of the Army’s and Navy’s medium helicopters is an imperative component of the modernisation of the helicopter operations of these two services, particularly in the ADF’s network centric warfare functionality, open waters and littoral operational environments and with emphasis on coalition operations.
The acquisition of new helicopters, at the same time as the Blackhawks and Seahawks are being given a MLU, might seem at first sight to be a waste of money, but the expense is considered to be essential if there is to be a “seamless” transition from old to new aircraft and a continuum of their capabilities.The adoption of a policy to minimise the number of types of new aircraft is economically and operationally sound and will significantly reduce the fleet operational costs, the costs of the required training infrastructure and the costs of through-life support.