Asian Navies Continue to Modernize.
Given the helicopter’s versatility, it is not surprising that they form a key component of a number of navies in the region. This is particularly so with the helicopter’s vertical takeoff ability – allowing it to operate from a ship deckpad, in contrast to an aircraft carrier flightdeck or land based runway. These are required by naval fixed wing aircraft – but the helicopter’s hover capabilities allows it conduct at-sea retrieval or ship boarding even where no suitable landing area exists.
Initially naval helicopters were largely geared towards anti-submarine operations with ancillary observation and rescue at sea roles. However today, the naval helicopter is generally a multimission platform with an emphasis towards either a combat or combat support role and they come equipped with various sensors and electronics and are able to mount different mission-specific weapon systems or specialized equipment. This is reflected by the US Navy’s Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin MH-60R and MH-60S Seahawk fleet. The MH-60R is a multi-mission platform designed primarily for the anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare role while the MH-60S, unofficially known as the Knighthawk, in reflection of the CH-46D Sea Knight which it replaced, carries out combat support missions such as vertical replenishment, combat search and rescue, special warfare support and airborne mine countermeasures. However the multimission capabilities of such helicopters in turn is reflected in their costs leading to some nations preferring to operate mission specific helicopters or small helicopters with limited or no sensor/electronic capabilities, the latter being reflected by the Philippines and Indonesian navies use of the MBB manufactured BO-105.
Two recent events have shown the importance of naval helicopters, the first being the ongoing naval operations in response towards the piracy threat posed to merchant shipping operating around the Gulf of Aden area, in which several piracy attacks were thwarted by naval helicopters from ships operating either as part of the international naval task forces or on independent anti-piracy missions. The helicopter’s speed advantage allows it to respond rapidly to a distress call despite being a distance away in contrast to naval vessels. The second event was the recent Japan tsunami disaster, where naval helicopters from the United States and Japan Maritime Self Defence force played a key role in the relief efforts. In a similar vein also, Thailand’s naval helicopters were used on March 30th to evacuate tourists and residents stranded on islands in Southern Thailand due to floods on the mainland.
Despite the utility and versatility of naval helicopters, the size of rotary-wing fleets in the region are much smaller in contrast to their land based counterparts. Several reasons lead to this including, as mentioned earlier, the costs of specialized or multimission naval helicopters makes it difficult for most nations to operate them in quantity. While navies can field civilian helicopters adapted or modified for maritime use, such aircraft naturally are limited by their capabilities in conducting military missions. At the same time the fact remains that naval helicopters exists to support a nation’s fleet and thus ship procurement naturally takes priority over the associated helicopter procurement. This factor is even further amplified by the rising costs of ships and their associated weapon systems. Concurrent with this is the fact that a navy generally needs to have ships of sufficient minimum size capable of embarking a naval helicopter. While navies can compensate for not having a suitable ship via basing the naval helicopters on land, the result is that the aircraft has a limited radius of operation based on its location and range. This is in contrast to shipborne naval helicopters whose radius is more wideranging due to the fact that they operate from a mobile base in the form of the parent ship. This factor becomes even more crucial given the emphasis by most regional navies in patrolling and enforcing Economic Exclusions Zones that reach to 200 nautical miles from the country’s coastline. In addition, the increased globalization of the world has led to most navies operating far from their territorial waters.
The ongoing issue of piracy in the Gulf of Aden region for example, has resulted in the Chinese, Malaysian, Thai and Singaporean navies all deploying ships with helicopter support to an area well beyond their normal operational environment. This is due to the fact that piracy knows no boundaries and has threatened merchant shipping of many nations. For a similar purpose, Indonesia has been continuously deploying a single Sigma class corvette with a helicopter as part of the United Nations maritime task force operating off Lebanon.
Because of these changing operational needs it has become largely impractical for a navy to operate helicopters from a land base rather than a ship. At the same time the costs of purchasing a ship capable of embarking and operating a naval helicopter and the costs of the helicopter itself creates a financial limit as to how many helicopters a navy afford to maintain and operate – or even purchase in the first place.
In the future the development of rotary wing unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) capable of operating off ships may lead to a decline in naval helicopter procurement. However, because of payload limitations and the inability to carry passengers/cargo will ensure that such UAVs will never totally replace naval helicopters –at least not in the foreseeable future – but such systems will be attractive to navies with small ships and limited budgets.
An important factor that may actually lead to regional navies increasing their naval helicopter fleet in the near term is related to the increasing number of submarines operating in the Asia-Pacific region. Given that anti-submarine warfare helicopters form one of the key instruments in combating sub-surface threats, it would seem likely that the increased number of submarines in the Asia-Pacific region will in turn spur procurement by a number of countries. The following is a summary of some of the main regional navies naval helicopter fleets and the latest developments in regard to them.
The Royal Australian Navy’s main combat helicopters are 16 S-70B Seahawks which will be eventually replaced in 2014 at the earliest by up to 24 helicopters, either the Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin MH-60R Seahawk or the NATO Helicopter Industries NH-90 NFH. The decision on the helicopter is expected to be made sometime this year. Australia has already ordered 46 MRH-90 helicopters (the tactical transport version of the NH-90) with 40 to be delivered to the Australian Army and 6 to the RAN. 13 helicopters have already been delivered and are being used for testing and crew training but the program was reported last year to have suffered delays of 12 months for the Navy’s helicopters and 18 months for the Army’s helicopters due to a series of key issues, including engine failure, transmission oil cooler fan failures and the poor availability of spares. These problems may impact significantly on the NH-90’s chances to be selected as the S-70B’s replacement. The problems with the MRH-90 means that the RAN’s 817 Sqn, which carries out the fleet utility support role such as transport and search and rescue, continues to operate the Westland Sea King Mk 50 which the MRH-90s are to replace. Training for the RAN’s fleet air arm is carried by 723 Sqn which operates 13 Aerospatiale AS 350BA Ecureuil (Squirrel) and three Agusta A109E helicopters.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy operates a mix of licence-built French designs in the form of the Changhe Z-8 (based on the French Super Frelon) and Harbin Z-9 (based on the AS 365N Dauphin) and eight Kamov Ka-27/28s which operates from its Russian-built Sovremenny-class destroyers. Deliveries of an initial order of nine Kamov Ka-31 airborne early warning (AEW) helicopter have been said to have began last year in November. The Ka-31 is intended to support long-range anti-ship missile strikes from destroyers and cruisers, or operate from aircraft carriers in both air defence and strike support missions using its radar – which is said to be able to track surface targets out to 250km. An AEW-radar-equipped version of the Z-8 is also said to be under development.
The Indian Navy maintains one of the largest naval rotary-wing fleets in the region with over 140 helicopters of various makes. 9 Ka-31s provide AEW support for the Indian Navy while 13 Ka-28, 7 Ka-25s and some 35 Westland Sea Kings carry out the ASW role. A 2008 tender for some 16 helicopters to replace the Sea Kings, and expected to grow to some 60 helicopters, has made little to no progress. The Indian Navy in April 2010 also issued an RFI to several companies, namely Eurocopter of Europe, AgustaWestland of Italy, Bell Helicopters of United States and Kamov of Russia in regard to purchasing an unspecified number (said to be as high as 50) of twin-engine, light utility helicopters to replace its ageing fleet of HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) HSA 316B Chetak (Alouette III) helicopters, though likewise little has progressed since that time. Given the convoluted nature of the Indian defence procurement process, this is not a surprising state of affairs in regard to the two programmes – though the significant number of helicopters to potentially be purchased ensures that manufacturers will continue to maintain interest in the requirements.
The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force operates the largest fleet of Seahawks next to the United States Navy, with over a 100 SH-60 J/Ks. In addition 19UH-60J Blackhawks carry out the Search and Rescue role. 11 AW-101s, called the MCH-101 by the JMSDF are used for Airborne Mine Counter Measures duty. By the end of the decade, the JMSDF is expected to be looking for a replacement for the Seahawks though the recent tsunami disaster and the associated costs burden placed upon the Japanese government in recovering from the disaster may result in the Seahawk replacement being further postponed or scaled down.
The Royal Malaysian Navy’s Naval Air Wing consists of two squadrons of six helicopters each – No 501 with the AgustaWestland Super Lynx 300 and No 502 with the Eurocopter AS555 Fennec. No 502 also serves as a training squadron for new pilots. The RMN does not deploy its helicopters permanently on ships, instead assigning them as and when required. When not at sea, helicopters from both squadrons are based at the KD Rajawali Naval Air Station located within the Lumut naval base. Both helicopter types have been deployed aboard RMN ships tasked with escorting Malaysian shipping in the Gulf of Aden. On several occasions, RMN helicopters have thwarted pirate attacks in the area. Currently a Fennec helicopter is assigned to the RMN auxiliary ship Bunga Mas Lima which is now permanently tasked to escort Malaysian shipping through the Gulf of Aden area. Last year, during the joint RMN/Royal Malaysian Air Force “Angsa 2010” exercise held from 23 September to 6 October in the Straits of Malacca, the RMN Super Lynxes were used to direct airstrikes by RMAF aircraft – though such direction only involved the use of voice communications rather than datalinks. At sea Search and Rescue missions are largely the responsibility of the Royal Malaysian Air Force rather than the RMN Naval Air Wing. RMN Chief Admiral Aziz Jaafar recently stated in the 2011 March issue of the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine that the RMN had plans to purchase additional medium helicopters. However funding for such remains in doubt given the budgetary limitations the Malaysian armed forces face.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force is responsible for all air assets of the Singaporean Armed Forces and thus the six S-70B Seahawks that operate aboard the Republic of Singapore Navy’s six Formidable class frigate are under the RSAF organization as 123 Squadron RSAF. The 4 man crew of each helicopter is split between an RSAF pilot and co-pilot and an RSN sensor operator and tactical coordination officer. It is expected that the naval helicopter fleet will be expended with an additional six helicopters sometime in the future. The RSAF has also deployed two of its Super Puma helicopters aboard an RSN LST to provide helicopter support during Singapore’s two deployments to the Gulf of Aden as part of the CTF-151 Coalition anti-piracy task force.
The Republic of Korea Navy has 12 Mk.99 and 13 Mk.99A Super Lynx for the ASW role. In 2009 South Korea requested the purchase of 8 MH-60S for mine countermeasure operations. The helicopters would feature a range of airborne mine countermeasure sensors including AQS-20A towed sonar mine countermeasure systems, AES-1 airborne laser mine detection systems, ASQ-235 airborne mine neutralisation systems, ALQ-220 organic airborne and surface influence sweep systems and AWS-2 rapid airborne mine clearance systems.
The Royal Thai Navy operates six SH-60B Seahawks in the ASW role and six Sikorsky S-76 in the Search and Rescue Role. The RTN also has 2 Super Lynx Mk 110 and 2 MH-60S. The RTN originally planned to purchase 6 MH-60S but so far only the purchase of two helicopters have been made.
The Indonesian Navy operates around 18 helicopters in the form of 5 Super Pumas, 2 BO-105s, 8 Bell 412s and 3 EC120s. Given the Indonesian Navy’s priority on the procurement of ships to adequately patrol it’s waters and to replace it’s aging assets, the purchase of naval helicopters is very low on the Navy’s list of priorities. Given Indonesia’s archipelagic nature, the lack of naval helicopters may not be as serious as it seems given that land based fixed wing aircraft are well able to largely cover surrounding waters without difficulty due to air bases stationed on numerous islands. Still, given the increasing number of submarines operating around the region, Indonesia may be spurred to procure an advanced ASW helicopter to counter this growing threat.
Helicopters are a vital asset for any modern Navy, with a variety of functions such as ASW, over-the-horizon targeting, search & rescue and vertical replenishment. Though expensive, they will continue to be procured in increasing numbers.