Two Grand Old Ladies

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

Two Grand Old Ladies

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.

History of the Blackhawk and Seahawk Aircraft

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]:-

  • October 1965. US Department of Defense issued an Objective Paper for a future UTTAS aircraft to replace the ageing UH-1.
  • January 1972. RFPs were issued to Bell, Boeing-Vertol (B-V) and Sikorsky. A total of five submissions were received from these companies with Bell’s submission being declined, leaving B-V and Sikorsky to be contracted to design and each produce five prototypes, three of which were to be complete flying aircraft, for evaluation and designated YUH-60A.
  • November 1974. The Sikorsky YUH-60A prototype flew with the S-70 redesignation.
  • 1976. The S-70 was selected by the US Army and a contract was awarded to Sikorsky to replace the UH-1 Huey family. The S-70 was redesignated the UH-60A Blackhawk and had an ISD of 1979 to the US Army. The SH-60A Seahawk variant was spun off from UH-60A.
    The UH-60A and the naval variant the SH-60A were immediate successes, with large numbers of them being produced for the US Army and US Navy respectively, and for overseas buyers, with a long list of variant designations to identify the purchasing country.

Australian Acquisition

  • November 1987. Australian Army’s 5th Australian Regiment (based in Townsville) was established to operate its fleet of helicopters.
  • 1992. Australian Army buys 39 UH-60A Blackhawks with variant designation S-70A-9 (export). Sikorsky provided one complete aircraft with the balance of 38 being supplied in CKD kit form for assembly in Australia.
  • 1992. A similar and parallel path to the S-70A-9 Blackhawk was established to buy 16 S-70B-2 (export) Seahawks for the RAN’s HS-816 Squadron, based in Nowra. Sikorsky supplied eight complete aircraft with the balance of eight aircraft supplied in CKD kit form for assembly by ASTA.

Australian Army and Navy Blackhawk and Seahawk Utilisation

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.

Evolution of US UH-60 to MH-60 variants

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.

The Australian Army’s and Navy’s helicopter fleet

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.

AIR9000 Helicopter Strategic Master Plan

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:-

  • Blackhawk mid-life upgrade [MLU]: Covered by AIR 5046 Phase 7. Original YOD 2005-2006, ISD 2010, Estimated Cost $750-$1,000m. 35 aircraft in service. Program status not known.
  • Seahawk MLU: Covered by AIR 9000 Phase 3 with three sub phases 3a (PDS), 3b (Initial Design Activity) and 3c (MLU) with the listed issues of capability, Through-Life costs, operational availability, commonality and Life of Type of upgraded aircraft. The YOD for 3c was stated to be 2007-2008 with an ISD of 2009 -2011. Estimated Cost $750m-$1,000m. It is possible that the program to ameliorate airframe corrosion is not part of Phase 3c, as in March 2006, it is understood that PS1405 was established for this costly activity under Life of Type of the aircraft. Program status not known, but the above timescale is unlikely to be achieved.
    The Seahawk MLU program is complicated by the cancellation of the Seasprite program, and the requirements to have aircraft available to support the four upgraded FFGs until they reach the end of life (mooted to be around 2015, but probably at least 2018) and to service the eight Anzacs whose replacement earlier than 2030 is improbable. The ability of the two early FFGs to be effective beyond 2018 is also questionable. So it might be said that the situation is a “kluge” or a “pot mess” .
  • Blackhawk Replacement: Covered by AIR 9000 Phases 2 and 4
    Phase 2 is for the Acquisition and Sustainment of 12 MRH-90s, the latter for a period of ten years. The contract was awarded to Australian Aerospace [AA] in June 2005.
    Phase 4 is for 34 MRH-90s and extension of the Acquisition and Sustainment requirement by AA.
    The contract for both tranches is for four aircraft to be built in Europe and the balance of 42 aircraft to be assembled in Australia by AA during the period 2007-2014.
  • Seahawk Replacement: Covered by Air 9000 Phases 6 and 8.
    Phase 6 is for the replacement of the SeaKing Mk50s with six MRH-90s.
    Phase 8 is understood to be for 27 ASW helicopters, thus providing a total fleet replacement, with an ISD of 2017-2019 and an estimated cost of $3.5b. In response to a DMO RFP, it is understood that Sikorsky offered its MH-60R and Eurocopter its NH-90 (MRH-90) for this aspect of AIR 9000. The findings of the RFP are unknown.
  • For the Record (unrelated to the Blackhawk/Seahawk replacement programs)
    Under AIR87 Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter [ARH], an RFT was issued in December 2000, followed by the announcement of Eurocopter as the preferred tenderer in August 2001. A contract for 22 Tiger ARHs was awarded in December 2001, worth $1.3b, to replace the Bell 206B-1 Kiowa and the UH1-1 Iroquois helicopters. The contract also included the supply of a full flight mission simulator, two cockpit procedural trainers and a range of ground crew training devices.
    The RFT was competed by Agusta offering the A129 Scorpion and Boeing offering the AH-4D Apache.

A Quick Look at the two contenders for the Seahawk Replacement

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:-

  • Performance
    • Gross Mass 10.600kg
    • Typical mission gross mass: 10,000kg
    • Cruise Max: 305kph
    • Cruise Economic: 260kph
    • Range Max: 800km
    • Range Ferry: 1200km
    • Endurance Max: 4:35 Hr: Min
  • Avionics system architecture and typical composition
  • Dual redundant, independent 1553 avionics and mission busses
  • “Fly-by-wire” all electric flight controls
  • Cockpit configured for single pilot operation with five 8” x 8” colour multi-function devices [MFDs], with programmable keysets, for flight, mission systems’ operation and maintenance data.
  • Automatic flight control system
  • Monitoring and diagnostics system
  • Honeywell Primus 701A weather radar
  • Military version of the HELLAS laser-based helicopter obstacle warning system is available.
  • Crew: Three-man crew comprising: Pilot, Tactical Coordinator [TACCO], Sensor Systems Operator [SENSO], with the TACCO and SENSO located at their operator stations in an avionics bay aft of the cockpit.
  • Mission systems: The following equipment is provided in the NH-90 (NF) version. It is not known whether the same equipment will be installed in the MRH-90:-
    1. “Topowl” helmet-mounted sight and display with 40° field of view.
    2. Countermeasures:-
      • AN/AAR-60 MILDS missile approach warning system,
      • Integrated radar warning, laser warning receivers, chaff and flare dispenser.
      • An AN/ALQ-211 integrated radio frequency countermeasures suite is also available.
    3. Radar:-
      • 360° surveillance radar mounted under the nose.
      • Multi-mode surveillance radar with synthetic aperture and inverse synthetic aperture imaging modes to optimise surface detection, including periscope detection.
    4. FLIR:-
      • Tactical FLIR system mounted in the nose
      • MAD
    5. Sonar: Combined active dipping sonar, sonobuoy processing system and sonobuoy launcher. (It is assumed that the sonar suite will be configured to operate with Barra and other selected sonobuoys.)
    6. Communications:-
      • Integrated communications and identification management system
      • Secure radio system for air-to-air and air-to-ground communications
      • Link 11 secure data link
      • IFF
    7. Weapons: Range of anti-submarine torpedoes, air-to-surface missiles and air-to air missiles.

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:-

  • Performance
    • Mass empty: 6,161kg
    • Take-off Gross Mass: 10,206kg
    • ASW take-off Mass: 10,170kg
    • ASW useful load: 3,003kg
    • ASuW take-off mass: 9,820kg
    • AsuW useful load: 2,744kg
    • Cruise: 252kph
    • Range Max: 966km
    • Endurance: 3:18 Hr: Min
      Note: values vary depending on source
  • Avionics system architecture and typical composition
  • Dual redundant, independent 1553 avionics and mission busses. Flight and mission management computers, with mass memory hosting dedicated MH-60R full operational software suite covering all mission applications.
  • “All glass” cockpit, with four 24.6cm wide x 18.5cm high colour MFDs with common programmable keysets, providing selectable flight information, engine instrumentation, mission systems’ operation information and maintenance data.
  • NV goggle provisions
  • Cockpit configured for dual control (pilot and co-pilot) and tactical mission operator, all with functionally equivalent capabilities. Sensor station for tactical mission operator located in cabin.
  • Mission systems:-
    1. Navigation: L-N-1006 dual GPS/INS
    2. Communications: LINK16, ARC-120 radios. Voice, data, UHF/VHF, Satcom and Ku-band high data rate radio link between host ship and helicopter.
    3. Countermeasures
      • AN/ALQ-210 ESM, AN/AAR-47 missile approach warning system,
      • AN/ALQ-144 IR Jammer, Laser Warner Receiver, AN/ALE-39 chaff and flare dispenser to counter RF and IR homing missiles
      • On-board library of emitter signals to aid classification
    4. Radar: AN/AP-147 multimode radar with SAR and Automatic ISAR, Long Pulse Interval modes and integrated IFF. Periscope detection. Auto Detect/Track up to 255 Contacts, Weather mode, Air-to-Air Tracking mode.
    5. FLIR: AN/AAS-44 detection and tracking system using FLIR and Laser target designator for Hellfire launch.
    6. LIDAR: light imaging detection and ranging laser-based targeting system for ASW/mine warfare operations.
    7. Acoustics: Airborne Low Frequency (3-5kHz) active dipping sonar (ALFS), integrated with AN/UYS-2A Modular Processor.
    8. Medium frequency active sonar: Comprehensive suite of aids to detection, location and classification, including acoustic mission planner for sonobuoy acoustics optimisation embedded in mission software. Uses environmentally sensitive sonobuoy tactic algorithm.
    9. Sonobuoys: Carries mix of up to 25 active and passive sonobuoys with simultaneous processing of 8 directional types.
    10. Weapons:-
      • Four weapon stations for Hellfire/Penguin missiles
      • Up to 3 ATK Mk50 or Mk46 Air-dropped torpedoes


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.
In issuing an RFP, DMO has been able to establish a likely short-list of suppliers to two, Sikorsky and Eurocopter. The stakes for these two companies would appear to be even in many respects, with Sikorsky being the incumbent and Eurocopter being the contender. The aircraft offered by the two contenders are quite evenly matched despite their United States and European origins.
In the end, interoperability and commonality with the US Navy and US Marine Corps might be the decider, all other aspects being equal. But as always, acquisition price, operational performance, through-life support costs as well as local content will weigh in the balance.

APDR at a glance