Naval helicopters


Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong

The helicopter’s first combat use was in World War II. Germany pioneered the field, while the only Allied helicopter to see action was the Sikorsky R-4 for rescue missions in Burma and Alaska. The Korean War saw a major expansion in helicopter usage, and since that time the asset has revolutionised operations on land, in the air (obviously!) and at sea. The helicopter’s versatility and practicality – and its ability to land on and take off from a small landing area – means it is ideally suited to operations from warships.

The introduction of the turboshaft engine decades ago enabled smaller helicopters and, consequently, the ability to operate from smaller warships. Today, many destroyers can carry up to two helicopters, while frigates and offshore patrol vessels (OPV) also embark helicopters. Medium-sized and large helicopters can operate from aircraft carriers and amphibious assault-type ships, with larger helicopters ideally suited for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) thanks to their range and payload. The naval helicopter performs a plethora of vital tasks including: reconnaissance, observation, logistics (e.g. vertical replenishment, personnel transport), ASW, electronic warfare (EW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW), naval special warfare (NSW), airborne mine countermeasures (AMCM), anti-piracy/anti-terrorism, search and rescue (SAR), combat search and rescue (CSAR) and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC).

Particular modifications are needed for naval helicopters. For example, their main rotors need to be foldable (this folding system is usually powered to reduce risks to crews) to fit within the confines of a ship hangar. On larger craft, the tail may also fold to reduce overall length. Naval helicopters need to resist saltwater corrosion, prevent water ingestion and cater for the possibility of ditching at sea (e.g. emergency flotation devices). A deck restraint system is crucial aboard ships, and a hoist is necessary for SAR roles. A shipboard aircraft landing system for assisting landing on a rolling flight deck is useful, with one example being the Recovery Assist, Secure and Traverse (RAST) system from Curtiss-Wright Corporation that is in service with Australia, Canada, Japan, Spain, Taiwan and the USA. Meanwhile, the same company’s Aircraft Ship Integrated Secure and Traverse System (ASIST) is an electronic system that aids pilots attempting deck landings.

Last month Defence Review Asia reported that 698 military helicopter sales in 2012 were divided as follows: Sikorsky 24%, Russian Helicopters 24%, Eurocopter 18%, Boeing 12%, Bell 6% and AgustaWestland 6%. Certainly, manufacturers see the Asia-Pacific region as having huge potential in light of existing and emerging security tensions, as well as the fact that legacy equipment needs to be replaced in many inventories. With many countries reducing budgets and tightening belts, the region is an attractive market for manufacturers and this article examines what naval helicopters are in use and which countries are acquiring new platforms.

It is true that the USA borders the Pacific Ocean, but it also maintains a formidable presence in the Western Pacific that dwarves that of most other navies. For this reason, and for the considerable influence it wields with regional allies, we may first discuss the Sikorsky MH-60 family. The MH-60S “Knighthawk” (not an official name) entered full-rate production as the US Navy’s (USN) maritime workhorse in February 2002. It replaced the Sea Knight in USN service although the latter is still used by the US Marine Corps (USMC). The navy should eventually acquire 237 MH-60S examples.

The MH-60S “Sierra” bears an obvious resemblance to the SH-60B Seahawk on which it is based, sharing its T-700-GE-401C engines, rotor system, folding tail pylon, transmission and drive train. It integrates Link 16 and Raytheon’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS-A). The MH-60S is easily modified with mission kits (e.g. AMCM or CSAR). It has a hover-in-flight refuelling system too.

The MH-60R “Romeo” is closely related to the MH-60S, and both types share a Lockheed Martin ‘glass’ cockpit. The MH-60S Seahawk is the primary ASW and ASuW helicopter platform of the USN, replacing both the SH-60B and SH-60F. More than 150 MH-60R craft of the 298 required have been delivered to the USN to date.

The innovative Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor is almost a helicopter and it certainly offers capabilities exceeding those of rotary craft. The USMC has approximately 120 MV-22B variants in service and it is on the cusp of joining the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) forward-deployed on Okinawa. Mid-year it is expected to supplant elderly CH-46E Sea Knights. The CV-22B is used by the US Air Force for special operations. Japan has studied the feasibility of purchasing the Osprey.

Southeast Asia
The S-70B Seahawk is the export version of the USN’s well-known SH-60B Seahawk. Singapore received six for use aboard the navy’s Formidable-class frigates. They were ordered in 2005 and entered service in January 2011. As with all Singapore helicopter assets, they are flown by the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). However, the navy supplies the system operators aboard these Seahawks of 123 Squadron, which is Singapore’s first ever naval helicopter squadron. Two more S-70B Seahawks are believed to have been ordered in February 2013, with delivery expected in 2016.

Malaysia has an upcoming requirement for 6-12 ASW helicopters, though it is unlikely to be enacted until the 2016-20 timeframe because of funding constraints. The naval air wing of the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) currently contains six Super Lynx and six Eurocopter AS555N Fennec craft. Malaysia was actually the first foreign customer of the Super Lynx 300 when it ordered them in 1999. Two possibilities for this future requirement are the MH-60R that is being strongly marketed by Sikorsky, and a navalised Eurocopter EC725. The latter would offer commonality advantages with the EC725s the air force is currently receiving.

The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) was the first export customer for the MH-60S, with the navy ordering two examples in mid-2007. These were delivered in August 2011 and they are used for maritime utility roles, logistics and personnel transport. In fact, the author witnessed one being employed for troop transport in the recent Exercise Cobra Gold in February. Thailand also operates six older S-70B-7 craft acquired in the late 1990s plus four Super Lynx 300s. The S-70B Seahawks were originally ordered for service on Thailand’s sole aircraft carrier, but this vessel does not often venture out to sea because of funding and manpower shortages.

The Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) operates locally assembled MBB BO 105 and Bell 412EP helicopters, with the latter being licence-produced by PT Dirgantara Indonesia. The country does need new naval helicopters but no competition has been formalised to date. However, the defence minister promised ASW helicopters were a priority for use aboard new Sigma-class corvettes.

The Philippine Navy (PN) is undergoing a minor renaissance with new vessels arriving and, recently, new helicopters being ordered. AgustaWestland was selected to supply three AW109 Power maritime helicopters, plus an option exists for two more. Vincenzo Alaimo, AgustaWestland’s head of regional sales for Southeast Asia, said, “We’re delighted that the Philippine Navy has selected the AW109 Power as part of its armed forces modernisation programme after an extensive evaluation of competing types.” The craft are to be used for exclusive economic zone (EEZ) protection, surface surveillance, SAR and maritime security, operating from both ship and shore. They should be delivered next year and can be used aboard two newly obtained Hamilton-class cutters from the USA. The Philippines is not the type’s only user, for Bangladesh ordered two AW109E Power craft in February 2010.

East Asia
Taiwan is reliant on the USA for major military equipment, and so the Republic of China Navy (ROCN) is another regional Seahawk operator. The navy has 21 S-70C Thunderhawks serving primarily in the ASW role. Taiwan has two variants, the S-70C(M)1 and (M)2 that differ in engine type. In 2010 it was revealed Taiwan had expressed interest in an AMCM version of the future CH-53K Super Stallion, indicating an emerging requirement on the part of the ROCN.

On 15 January, the AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat received its first export order from the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN). South Korea ordered eight helicopters for SAR, ASW, ASuW and maritime-security roles. It is also significant that the AW159 defeated the MH-60R in South Korea’s competition. This was a reversal of what happened in Denmark, where the MH-60R vanquished the AW159. Delivery of the first batch of four will occur in 2015, with the second quartet arriving the following year. The South Korean craft will be fitted with active dipping sonar, 360º scan radar, a nose-mounted electro-optical device and rescue hoist. The ROKN already operates 20+ Super Lynx Mk.99 and Mk.99A helicopters so there will be some family commonality. The AW159 Wildcat succeeds the Super Lynx, possessing more powerful engines, a redesigned tail and better avionics. South Korea is developing the Surion with support from Eurocopter, and a naval variant is on the cards. However, it was not going to be developed in time for the navy’s needs, which is one reason the ROKN opted for the AW159.

The standard ship-borne naval helicopter in the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) is the SH-60J that was built under licence by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI). These started arriving in the early 1990s, with 103 built. The updated SH-60K was adopted in 2005 and low-rate production continues. Approximately 40 are in service and another 26 are due over the next five years. Japan will need to replace older craft and the MH-60R is a strong possibility considering past Sikorsky successes in the country. Japan also operates the MH-53EJ Sea Dragon as a mine-hunter platform although it is now being replaced by eleven MCH-101 craft. The MCH-101 is a special version of the AgustaWestland AW101 built locally by Kawasaki Heavy Industries and fitted with Northrop Grumman’s AQS-24A mine-hunting system and an Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS) pod. The JMSDF also uses the Eurocopter EC135T2i as a training platform, with the first handed over in December 2009. Fifteen will eventually be fielded.

The primary Russian naval helicopter types are the Kamov Ka-27/28/29/31 family that all share a coaxial main rotor. A major regional operator is China, with eight Ka-28s received alongside new Sovremenny destroyers in 1998. In 2010 China started taking delivery of nine Ka-28 ASW platforms plus nine Ka-31 airborne early warning (AEW) helicopters. These are most suitable for use aboard China’s new and future aircraft carriers. This move suggests the Ka-28 is preferable to the indigenous Harbin Z9C owing to its greater capability, with the Z9C a locally built derivative of the Eurocopter Dauphin (a navalised version of the Z9B). Whilst on the topic of the Z9C, it is pertinent to mention Pakistan. This Muslim ally of China operates the Z9EC optimised for ASW, including the fitting of dipping sonar and pulse Doppler radar. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) also flies the Z8, a copy of the Aerospatiale Super Frelon, in two versions – the Z8JA transport and Z8JH for MEDEVAC. A Z8 AEW version has been observed, but it appears to be suffering developmental problems. China is developing the 8-ton Z15 in conjunction with Eurocopter, and it is very likely a naval version will appear in due course to help sate the PLAN’s thirst for new rotor craft. For example, China is developing its amphibious forces with the Type 071 helicopter assault ship and the future Type 081. The latter displaces 22,000 tons and has the capacity to embark eight helicopters.

Australia became the first export customer of the MH-60R when it ordered 24 craft at a cost of $3+ billion under AIR 9000 Phase 8. In the 2009 Defence White Paper, the government committed to equipping Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warships with a new combat helicopter capable of maritime missions, ASW and the ability to fire Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and MK 54 torpedoes. Purchased via a Foreign Military Sale (FMS), these new craft will replace 16 S-70B-2 Seahawks plus they reinstate a surface-strike capability lost when the SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite programme was cancelled in 2008.

The MH-60R defeated the NH90 NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH), which could have been assembled by Australian Aerospace in Brisbane. However, interoperability with its USN ally is important for Australia, and so the first MH-60Rs are expected in mid-2014. They should enter service a year later. The figure of 24 allows the RAN to have at least eight warships (ANZAC and Hobart classes) equipped simultaneously. The remainder will be based at HMAS Albatross in Nowra, New South Wales.

The Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) operates Seasprite helicopters from its pair of ANZAC-class frigates, but they can also fly from HMNZS Canterbury and two OPVs. The Seasprite is equipped with the Raytheon AGM-65 Maverick missile. The 2010 White Paper noted the Seasprite fleet was due for a midlife upgrade or replacement, and serious consideration is being given to buying Australia’s eleven surplus SH-2G(A) Super Seasprites. NZ is also developing a Joint Amphibious Task Force (JATF) based on Canterbury, whose primary embarked helicopter will be the NH90. The latter is operated by No 3 Squadron of the air force and it does not have any specific naval modifications. However, it will be some time before the NH90 gains certification for such ship-borne operations.

The Indian Navy (IN) is pursuing a16-craft Multirole Helicopter (MRH) requirement, with the Sikorsky S-70B and NH90 NFH the two finalists. The MH-60R dropped out early on because the USA insisted on an FMS route for it. Trials concluded in 2011, and since then NHIndustries has claimed its competitor could not have met technical parameters. The IN delayed announcement of the winner purportedly until the end of 2012 but the two companies are still waiting on tenterhooks. First delivery would be within 46 months of contract signature, and an option exists for 46 further craft.

The IN has another global contest in the wings to progressively replace Sea King Mk.42B helicopters. The N-MRH competition is for anywhere between 75 and 120 multirole helicopters in the 9- to 12.5-ton weight class. A Request for information (RfI) was issued in June 2011 and candidates are waiting for a formal tender to appear. The N-MRH winner is destined for SAR, MEDEVAC and surveillance roles. Potential contenders include the NH90, Eurocopter EC725, and Sikorsky MH-60R and MH-60S. Because any selection is a considerable time away, the IN will upgrade 17 Sea Kings in the interim, with AgustaWestland and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) vying as top candidates. The IN is expected to upgrade its Ka-28 ASW fleet too.

India is currently one of the most active defence markets in the world, and the IN also wants 56 twin-engine light utility craft. The USD1 billion Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) programme will replace Chetaks based on frigates and OPVs. The IN discovered quite quickly that the Dhruv was not adept at ship-borne ASW operations, hence the need for this international competition. The NUH will combine the roles of light ASW (carriage of one lightweight torpedo or two depth charges), logistics, SAR, observation and electronic intelligence. The chosen 4.5-ton craft will also carry rocket pods and 12.7mm machine guns. A request for proposal (RfP) was issued to AgustaWestland, Bell, Boeing, Eurocopter, Kamov and Sikorsky in August 2012. Bids were due in January 2013 and the navy has stipulated the winning design should enter service in 2016. However, in light of recent allegations of impropriety against AgustaWestland regarding the sale of twelve AW101 craft, the Italian company may be at a severe disadvantage in future competitions.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here