An asymmetric evaluation

AIR 9000 phase 8

22nd Dec 2010


The contest to replace the Royal Australian Navy’s ageing fleet of Seahawk helicopters is the biggest game in town at the moment. With a price tag of around $3 billion, this will be the largest Defence decision of this financial year and will have long-term consequences for the composition of the ADF. The choice will not only decide the structure of RAN’s helicopter fleet but will also influence the weaponry that can be deployed in the event of a conflict.

It is believed that the evaluation team has completed their assessment of the two bids and the recommendation is working its way through the Defence system prior to being presented to Government early next year. The contenders are the Sikorsky Seahawk MH-60R being offered by ‘Team Romeo’ via the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system and the NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) being bid by Eurocopter and their subsidiary Australian Aerospace. Australian Aerospace already has the contract to assemble and support 46 similar Eurocopter Multi-Role Helicopters (MRHs) in Brisbane.

The evaluation.

This has been an unusual situation for Australia, with the offer from Eurocopter being a commercial bid structured against a Request For Tender and from the other side an FMS “not to exceed” public quote of US $2.1 billion for 24 MH-60Rs that includes additional items such as spare engines. It is difficult to see how Eurocopter could offer 24 NFHs for a lower amount because their helicopter is newer and makes greater use of expensive composites to reduce corrosion and weight without sacrificing strength . However, it is possible that the company has offered fewer helicopters, arguing that they can still meet the RAN’s needs with a reduced number of airframes. This is not a subject that Eurocopter has been prepared to canvass publicly.

Before the bids closed it was assumed that the cost of the NFH package would come down as a result of commonality with the 46 Multi-Role Helicopters purchased to replace Army’s Blackhawks and Navy’s Sea Kings. The NFH and MRH are essentially the same with more than 80% of their equipment, airframe and avionics in common, which should logically lead to reductions in support and training costs, amongst other things. However, it seems that that Defence could see little financial benefit in the Eurocopter bid flowing on from already owning and operating the MRHs.

Another unusual feature of the tender evaluation is that the different weapons carried by each helicopter will not influence the source selection decision. In making a recommendation to Government, Defence will include information about the weapons but apparently will not allow their characteristics to influence the recommendation. For a project formally known as the Future Naval Aviation Combat System this seems a little strange and some would say is to the disadvantage of the NFH. More on that later.

Both contenders have been extremely cautious about the content of their bids out of fear of upsetting the Commonwealth.

The aim of AIR 9000.

By the early 1990’s the ADF operated 13 different types of helicopter – a ridiculous number for a medium size defence force facing budgetary constraints. While accepting that it would be impossible to cut the fleet down to a single type, Defence made the calculation that it could achieve savings by at least partial rationalization of helicopter brands. An example of this thinking is the replacement of Blackhawks and Sea Kings with the MRH.

Seeing how technology was enabling helicopters to become more multi-role, some in Defence made the calculation that whichever manufacturer succeeded in replacing Army’s Blackhawk helicopters – made by US manufacturer Sikorsky – would be in a good position to replace the Seahawks, also made by Sikorsky.

Once Defence selected the Eurocopter MRH to fulfill the requirements of Phases 2, 4 & 6 by the mid 2000s it placed the company in a good position to also eventually replace the Seahawk with the NHF, then still under development. Under the original timeline, the year of decision was to be 2015/16, with an in-service date two years after that, which looked a perfect fit for the NFH

But along came the Seasprite mess and when that contract was cancelled in 2008 it left a significant gap in the rotary wing fleet, especially in the RAN’s anti-submarine capabilities – already weakened by the retirement of ASW Sea Kings in 1996. In addition Navy were starting to complain that their 16 Seahawks were running out of useful life – not because of airframe issues, because the helicopters have been under-utilised – but for the reason of the age of their Australian-specific electronics.

On this basis Defence and Government decided to fast track Phase 8 and for a time there was even uncertainty as to whether a competition should occur, with many in uniform publicly advocating the sole-source purchase of the MH-60R, already in service with the United States Navy.

The Contenders.

MH-60R.

Manufacturer Sikorsky describes the MH-60R as a new generation of the Seahawk helicopter. The US Navy is sometimes a very conservative organization and prefers long-term procurements to be done as a series of families of equipment, rather than continually introduce brand new products into service. Good examples are the Standard family of missiles and the Aegis radar and fire control system.

Designed to replace two older types of helicopters – SH60Bs and SH60Fs – the US Navy has ordered 300 of them, with the first squadron deployed at sea early in 2009. Almost 100 of the aircraft have now been deployed and they are proving to be very robust and reliable machines. Speaking in San Diego, USN Captain Jeff Hughes explained the difference between the Romeo and the helicopters it is replacing:

“Compared with the original Seahawks, technology has advanced over the last 25 years and most of the mission systems and weapons delivery systems have benefited from a process of technology insertion which have made them much more capable. There have also been improvements in the airframe and many of the sensors – some examples being the ALFS low frequency dipping sonar, an extremely capable FLIR and also the radar, which has better sensitivity of detection than its predecessor and also has an ISAR mode.

“On the aviation side, the glass cockpit is fantastic – it provides a lot more data to the crew, not only from the perspective of piloting the aircraft but also because of greatly improved information delivery which makes a big difference at the tactical level. There are now so many more ways of getting the data you need and a far great number of ways of exploiting the information received.”

Because of its mature stage of development the Romeo can be considered a low risk option for Australia – unless the RAN starts to fiddle with the electronics and repeats the mistakes of the Seasprites. Because of the “family” design approach the Romeo uses the same engines as the retiring SH-60 series, albeit improved with the addition of a digital engine control unit. The helicopter also retains an older system of mechanical flight controls, though without adverse impact on reliability or handling.

Australia stands to benefit from future USN upgrades to their MH-60Rs, which will be progressively improved, principally through new software insertion.

However, a complicating factor for Australia is that the USN actually deploys two types of Seahawk, with the MH-60 Sierra complementing the Romeos, particularly when they are operating as part of a large aircraft carrier battle group. The role of the Sierra is to undertake the workhorse functions of transport, vertical replenishment and so on. It is relatively simple to reconfigure a Romeo to free up internal room by removing the dipping sonar and other items, but this does take some time and the US prefers to have Sierras available whenever possible. Last year when the carrier USS Stennis undertook a 6-month deployment in the Pacific, 11 Romeos and 8 Sierras went along with the battle group.

Another reason why the USN has two types of Seahawk is because of pilot training and specialization. The US prefers to have two streams – one for warfare pilots and another for those undertaking more general missions – and has the resources to match the helicopters with the people flying them.

Australia is only interested in purchasing Romeos because the RAN can only operate one helicopter per ship. The Romeo is described as a multi-mission helicopter and it is certainly flexible, the only question is whether it is flexible enough for Australian purposes.

NFH / NH90

Produced by a consortium made up of Eurocopter, Augusta-Westland and Fokker, the NFH is a newer helicopter and is designed around the concept of one helicopter per ship operations. It uses fly-by-wire flight controls that dramatically reduce pilot workload – once airborne the helicopter can simply be flown by series of button presses, if desired. This allows NHF operations to be conducted by a single pilot with an observer in the front of the aircraft and – in turn – allows greater attention to be paid to the mission being undertaken rather than the task of flying. This concept is closer to how the RAN prefers to operate and is different from the USN system of two pilots per aircraft.

As discussed above, the NFH is the naval version of the MRH. While having almost the same external dimensions as the Romeo, the author has sat in both and the NFH has noticeably more internal volume – probably more than 40%. The helicopter also has two large sliding doors on either side of the fuselage for easy access, compared with the single door for the Romeo. The helicopter can also be reconfigured in less than an hour to have a rear loading ramp, an attractive feature for humanitarian missions or disaster relief. The large internal volume allows the helicopters to carry more people for boarding parties or stretchers for casualty evacuation.

Nevertheless, the NFH is at an earlier stage in its development and while deliveries have started to the navies of Italy, the Netherlands and France the helicopter is not yet fully certified to undertake all of its warfare missions, although it is already fitted with the necessary equipment. During a visit to the French Naval Flight Test Centre at Hyeres near Toulon, APDR learned that two NFHs are already undergoing testing and will be joined by a third imminently. While the scale of testing looks smaller than that of US operations, the pilots, engineers and technicians are just as thorough, dedicated and professional as their American colleagues and just as determined to compete their work on schedule.

If the test programme goes as planned, the NFH will be fully certified by 2014 – which would be around the time that Australia hopes to introduce the new helicopters into service. However, flight testing is a painstaking business and slippages have been known to occur.

Weapons

The Romeo and the NFH have different philosophies of operation because they have been designed for vastly different navies and they carry different weapons as a consequence. The former carries eight smaller Hellfire missiles with a maximum range of 10 kilometres (officially 8km) while the NFH is equipped with two Marte 2 anti-ship missiles, having a range of more than 30 kilometres and a much larger warhead. A 100+ kilometre version of the Marte is under development. Both helicopters carry a lightweight torpedo for anti-submarine warfare: Raytheon’s Mk54 for the Romeo and the Eurotorp MU90 for the NFH. The Romeo can carry a single machinegun while the NFH can have two – one on each side of the aircraft.

a) Missiles

The reason why the Romeos carry a short range missile is because they typically operate as part of a far larger structure – often a carrier battle group – and attacks on hostile major surface combatants would be carried out by other available assets such as fixed-wing aircraft. The Romeo is optimized for use against swarm and speed boats – though the task of holding the guidance laser onto a small, bouncing, fast moving target cannot be easy. USN operators say that the Romeo could, if required, engage a larger ship – but placing a helicopter within 10 kilometres of a modern surface ship would be an extremely hazardous undertaking. While the Hellfire is proven, extremely reliable and one of the world’s best small missiles it could not be considered a genuine anti-ship weapon.

With a 70kg warhead the Marte 2 would sink or cause catastrophic damage to anything but the largest of enemy warships. Even with its current standoff range, the missile could be fired against a combatant with less risk of being shot down than a Romeo – though still not with complete impunity. In the event of trying to engage smaller craft such as speedboats, the NFH could use its heavy machine guns.

It has been said that the Hellfires on MH-60Rs could be used in support of ground troops during amphibious operations. This would seem to be a risky use of an expensive naval asset, especially when Australia has already purchased Tiger helicopters – equipped with Hellfire missiles – for precisely this task.

The fundamental purpose of the ADF is to protect Australia, preferably by having sufficient strength to deter attacks in the first place. If the only danger the RAN faced was from swarm boats there would be no need to have Air Warfare Destroyers or even Frigates. Submarines would be completely useless. The fact is that the Navy – like the other forces – have to be structured in such a way as to handle a large number of contingencies, up to and including the worst case scenario of full scale conventional warfare. In circumstances where Australia might be fighting alone, with individual ships away from air cover, the ability of Australian naval helicopters to undertake operations against major enemy surface combatants would seem to be highly desirable.

AIR 9000 phase 8 is also called the Future Naval Air Combat System project and on this basis alone it seems strange that weapon performance will not form part of the evaluation criteria. If a long-range genuine anti-ship missile in the form of the Penguin was good enough for the Seasprites one would hope that the same logic still applies today.

b) Torpedoes.

The Mk 54 lightweight torpedo that will equip Romeos is also part of the US “family” concept discussed earlier. It is an upgrade of the venerable Mk 46 designed to improve performance in shallow water but maintaining the old propulsion system. This is a uniquely American method, using Otto fuel rather than batteries. This propellant is a mixture of three synthetic substances and for the chemists out there they are: propylene glycol nitrate; 2-nitrodiphenylamine and dibutyl sebacate.

Otto fuel is considered toxic and over-exposure to it produces unpleasant effects such as headaches, nausea, loss of balance, poor hand-eye coordination, nasal congestion, eye irritation and breathing difficulties. The effects of long-term exposure are unknown. It is also expensive and difficult to procure.

The MU90 is an electrically driven lightweight torpedo with excellent performance in all conditions. In fact it is so good is it that it was selected by Australia a decade ago in a direct competition against the Mk 54 and is currently being fitted to RAN’s Anzac frigates, FFGs and will go on the new ‘Hobart’ Class air warfare destroyers – all of which will embark the helicopters being purchased via AIR 9000 phase 8.

The introduction of the MU90 into service has been a slow and tedious affair as described by the Australian National Audit Office. But this has nothing to do with the torpedo itself, which is a proven product. Instead the difficulties have largely been a consequence of Defence’s own procedures and processes, resulting in a scaling back of the project.

It has been suggested that in a time of conflict or during operations involving the USN, Australia would be better off with the Mk 54 because of ease of re-supply. This is a dangerous and untestable assertion. If Australia was at war and the US was not, then it is possible that the RAN would indeed receive replacement Mk 54 torpedoes quickly. But in the far more likely event that we were in a conflict together the natural instinct of the USN would be to look after their own interests first. Any captain who gave away some of their key anti-submarine weapons to an ally and whose ship was subsequently sunk by an enemy submarine would be declared insane. As the British soon discovered during the Falklands war, anti-submarine torpedoes are used at a prodigious rate – basically being fired whenever an underwater contact is made in case it is a submarine. The consequences of not doing so could be catastrophic – waiting for a submarine to be confirmed as such might allow it enough time to fire torpedoes at surface ships, including aircraft carriers. In a time of war, any navy that has lightweight torpedoes will in all probability keep them for their own use.

With this in mind, for reasons of self-reliance Australia has an assembly line for MU90s and could produce more of them if required and given some warning time.

As is the case for the missiles, it is hard to understand why the matter of the torpedo apparently does not form part of the fundamental decision-making matrix for Phase 8. At the very least Australia should specify that the MU90 will be integrated onto whichever helicopter is selected. This is the case for Denmark, where the MU90 will equip that navy’s MH-60Rs.

Safety & survivability

Both the NFH and Romeo are robust reliable machines with a great deal of built-in redundancy. On paper, the NFH has a slightly better power-to-weight ratio which will allow the aircraft to continue to hover at low altitude should the loss of an engine occur. This might not be the case for the Romeo, though it will still continue to fly. Having said that, the MH-60R has now accumulated around 30,000 flying hours without major incident.

The NFH also comes equipped with four large floats, which in the event of ditching can be deployed with car airbag speed. These can keep the aircraft afloat and upright even in high sea states for one hour – that is not only good news for the crew but also allows time for the helicopter itself to be recovered by a ship. The MH-60R doesn’t have floats and Sikorsky explain that they are not needed because the helicopter is so reliable – which indeed has been the case so far.

Industry packages.

a) Eurocopter.

The company’s local subsidiary Australian Aerospace has a facility in Brisbane that already assembles, tests and maintains the MRHs in service with the Army and Navy. The company estimates that if Australia selects the NFH then an additional 700 jobs – direct and indirect – will be generated in the surrounding area. However, a benefit more in the national interest would seem to be that if the NFH is selected it will add to the critical mass of Australian Aerospace, especially in areas of software support and software development. As CEO of Eurocopter Lutz Bertling has pointed out, the shell of the helicopter will probably remain the same for the next 30 years but the systems being carried in it will be upgraded four or more times during the same period.

Key suppliers to the NFH are Turbomecca for the engines and Sagem for the electro optics and these companies are already well established in Australia with a new facility at Sydney’s Bankstown airport. Furthermore, Thales – the supplier of the dipping sonar – is another strong Australian presence. They would all gain work on the NFH and be well placed to support and upgrade it.

b) Team Romeo.

Made up of Sikorsky, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, GE and CAE, the commercial heart of the industry package is an offer to overhaul and sell all of Army’s old Blackhawk helicopters as well as the retiring Navy Seahawks. In addition the team has had discussions with - and analysed the capabilities of - 85 Australia companies with a view to including them in Romeo-related activities in fields such as Network Centric Warfare, cockpit avionics and a large number of support and maintenance activities. Team Romeo estimates the overall value of their package to be $1.5 billion, though everything – including the refurbishment and sale of old helicopters – is contingent on the selection of the MH-60R.

Datalinks.

Due to the principles of Network Centric Warfare, platforms are no longer seen in isolation but rather as nodes in a much broader structure. This will certainly be the case for the helicopters being procured through Phase 8.

The MH-60R is already integrated into the USN network and each helicopter is equipped with Link 16 and also a directional high capacity system in the form of the Tactical Common Data Link. The latter allows the transmission of real-time video as well as other large data packets, with some of the benefits described earlier.

The RAN has introduced Link 16, but would need to install TCDL terminals on any ships that might need to take advantage of its capabilities. It is unclear how Australian ships with comparatively small control rooms and with a limited number of Principle Warfare Officers would be configured in the event that TCDL is introduced. The effort would be worth making because – for example – a helicopter with this link could stream live video of a boarding party back to the parent ship, greatly contributing to situational awareness and enhancing the safety of ADF personnel.

TCDL is an Ultra High Frequency system and therefore needs line-of-sight to work, or access to satellites.

The NFH also comes equipped with Link 16 – which is excellent for situational awareness - but for the moment this is its sole datalink. However, on the helicopter’s growth path is the installation of a Variable Message Format (VMF) datalink that has the benefit of being able to operate over a much wider range of frequencies than TCDL, including High Frequency – an advantage for deployments to remote and distant areas. The company says that if RAN wants any particular link installed the NFH has ample space and weight available.

Contribution to coalition operations.

When purchasing equipment, choices need to be made about not only what works best for the ADF itself but also what will allow Australia to make a contribution to coalition operations, especially those involving the United States. One school of thought is that the easiest, quickest and best way to make a meaningful contribution is to buy US equipment and thereby guarantee a high level of interoperability with US forces, especially the USN. This line of analysis clearly favors the purchase of the MH-60R.

However, it has also been convincingly argued that the RAN could make an even more significant contribution with the NFH because it would complement US systems. In any realistic scenario, Australia’s contribution to any one operation would be one, two or three ships and therefore a matching number of helicopters. As the USN has 300 Romeos on order and around 20 Romeos and Sierras as part of any battle group, Australia’s contribution of up to three additional MH-60Rs would be welcome, but probably not decisive. But if Australia contributed three helicopters with long-range surface strike missiles, a different and arguably more capable torpedo, a different dipping sonar and an ability to carry larger boarding parties – these things could all make a major difference in a coalition operation. As the Americans themselves are fond of saying, they like to have as many military tools in the toolbox to choose from as they can manage.

Conclusion.

This will be a very difficult choice for the Government with two strong bids, each with strengths and weaknesses. In both cases the positives far outweigh the negatives. AIR 9000 phase 8 will be the first major defence procurement decision to be taken by the new political team of Stephen Smith, Jason Clare and Julia Gillard. Given the strategic importance of the choice, the amount of money involved, some strong views on both sides of the competition and the chequered history of previous naval helicopter programmes, everyone should expect the process to be considered and meticulous.

In times of budget constraint, price will clearly be an important factor but the assessment of what best meets Australia’s short- and long-term operational needs is likely to be the decisive factor.

The weapons that come with each of the helicopters should form an important part of the calculation.

 

APDR at a glance