New naval aviation combat helicopters

The announcement on 16 June 2011 by the Minister for Defence Stephen Smith and the Minister for Defence Materiel Jason Clare, that Australia would acquire twenty four MH-60R Seahawk ‘Romeo’ naval combat helicopters at a cost of over $3 billion brings to a close a period of uncertainty in Australian naval aviation.

For some time now the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has suffered from a serious gap in combat aviation, and in particular anti-submarine warfare. In his 2010 Navy Capability Review Andrew Davies from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) summarised this problem:

Naval aviation remains an area where capability is well below state of the art. The failure of the Super Seasprite project has compounded the problem. The current fleet of helicopters suitable for embarked operations is limited in numbers, availability and capability. Navy has indicated that parts availability of the ageing Seahawks is becoming problematic. This increases the difficulty—and probably the expense—of keeping the fleet flying. But the most serious problem from a capability perspective is the lack of warfighting systems. None of the current embarked helicopters carry an anti-ship missile for ASuW, although they can provide targeting data for ship-launched Harpoon missiles. In the ASW role, the fleet is without a dipping sonar for submarine detection, and the Mk 46 airborne torpedo carried by the helicopters is obsolete.
The Super Seasprite was the aircraft intended by Defence to fill this role, but the cancellation of this project in March 2008 when an outlay of approximately $1 billion failed to reconcile the 1960s airframe with the modern avionics and combat systems desired by the RAN, meant that this issue has remained unresolved for some years longer than is desirable.

The acquisition of this capability was recognised as a priority in the 2009 White Paper, which, in keeping with an increased emphasis on anti-submarine warfare, said:

As a matter of urgency, the Government will acquire a fleet of at least 24 new naval combat helicopters to provide eight or more aircraft concurrently embarked at sea. These new aircraft will possess advanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities, including sonar systems able to be lowered into the sea and air-launched torpedos, as well as an ability to fire air-to-surface missiles.
The new helicopters will replace the Navy’s current combat helicopter capability provided by sixteen Seahawk S-70B-2 helicopters and will also provide air to surface strike capability. They will be based at HMAS Albatross, in Nowra, NSW, and operate from Anzac frigates and the air warfare destroyers when these become operational. They are being purchased under a Foreign Military Sales arrangement with the United States.

This decision follows a 15-month competitive acquisition process involving the Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin built MH-60R and the NATO Helicopter Industries NH90 NFH (which would have been assembled by Australian Aerospace).

Military off-the-shelf solutions
The Government has emphasised the utility of seeking military-off-the shelf solutions to capability needs on a number of occasions since taking office in 2007. The 2008 review of Defence procurement, Going to the next level: the report of the defence sustainment and procurement review (The Mortimer Review) explained this:

Consistent with this, a number of submissions to the Review suggested that Defence has often pursued a unique Australian solution, or modified an existing solution, without appropriate understanding of the attendant risks to cost, schedule and delivery. It is important that this be avoided in the future. While project requirements must ultimately reflect the demands of operational performance, they need to be tempered by the realities of cost, risk and what the market can deliver off-the-shelf and otherwise. Unless this is done, informed decisions about the appropriate mix of cost, schedule, risk and capability are impossible.
Military off-the-shelf (MOTS) acquisitions are known to be far more likely to provide a particular capability on budget, and within timeframe, than equipment which is designed from scratch or heavily modified. The C-17 Globemaster, and Boeing FA/18 Super Hornet acquisitions are examples of MOTS projects that were below-budget and/or ahead of schedule. As the Minister for Defence Materiel has said:

One of the big challenges that Defence faces is delay. If you're purchasing equipment that needs modification or customisation, on average, it's about 23 per cent late. If you're buying something that's first of type or is developmental, then, on average, it's about 66 per cent late. But if you buy off the shelf, on average, it comes in on schedule.
Indeed the Minister is up front about this as a reason for acquiring the ‘Romeo’, stating that it was chosen because it represented the best value for money and the lowest risk of schedule slippage. This decision might be a signal that the Government will take a more conservative line with defence acquisitions in the future.

On 28 April 2010, the then Minister for Defence, John Faulkner, announced the release of the Request for Tender (RFT) for Project AIR 9000, Ph.8—Naval Combat Helicopter. Only two companies were invited to respond: Australian Aerospace, the local subsidiary of European helicopter giant Eurocopter (a subsidiary of the European Aeronautic, Defence and Space Company (EADS)), and a team consisting of US helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky and systems integrator Lockheed Martin. Eurocopter offered the NH90 NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) while Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin offered the MH-60R Seahawk.

Writing in ASPI’s 2010 edition of the Cost of Defence, Gregor Ferguson describes the helicopters:

Both helicopters have two engines and both are equipped with a dipping sonar (to search for submarines), sonar processing system, and lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes. For Anti-surface warfare (ASuW) duties they are both equipped with radars and provide target data for ship-launched anti-ship missiles, Infra-Red (IR) and electro-optic sensors, and air-surface missiles. They also carry Electronic Warfare (EW) suites to protect against IR guided missiles and an Electronic Support Measures (ESM) to detect and identify ship, aircraft and missile radars and other electronic emissions at ranges well beyond those of the helicopters’ own radars.
The MH-60R, or ‘Romeo’, is the latest model in Sikorsky’s veteran SH-60 Seahawk family and is now in service with the US Navy. The aircraft are built by Sikorsky but the systems are built and installed by Lockheed Martin. Sikorsky claim that the Seahawk family of helicopters have racked up 2.5 million flight hours since they were introduced in the mid-1980s.

The US Navy currently operates around 100 of these helicopters and plans to buy a total of approximately 300. Given that they will remain in service for some decades, Australia will have the opportunity to benefit from interoperability with US forces but also “piggyback” on system and equipment upgrades as these occur over time. The ‘Romeos’ are also equiped for Network Centric Warfare (NCW) and are fitted with the US Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) incorporating the Link 16 data exchange network which enables the sharing of tactical data in more or less real time.

The basic ‘Romeo’ design traces its ancestry though the US Army’s Black Hawk and dates back to the 1970s with the first Seahawk (as the naval variant is known in the US) entering US Navy service in 1984. The ‘Romeo’ has a re-designed structure (which Sikorsky has claimed has scope for further development), an all-new digital cockpit and state of the art mission system. In the US Navy it is deployed alongside its ‘sister’ MH-60S ‘Sierra’ which is mainly used for troop transport and supply activities.

The NH90 NFH, manufactured by the European NATO Helicopter Industries consortium Eurocopter is the maritime variant of the MRH90 which Australia is acquiring in order to replace the Army’s S-70A Black Hawks and the Navy’s Sea King Mk50s. However, the relationship between the NH90 and the MRH-90 might well have damaged the former’s chances of winning the competition. Defence has experienced a variety of difficulties with the delivery of the MRH-90— difficulties including engine failure on some aircraft and poor availability of spares. This led to the Minister ordering a diagnostic review of the project and only agreement on a remediation plan between Defence and Eurocopter kept the MRH-90 off the Minister’s Projects of Concern list.

The NH90 NFH is a more modern design, developed during the 1990s. It is manufactured from a carbon fibre composite airframe making it more resistant to fatigue and corrosion, and has a larger cabin than the 'Romeo', containing seven seats and extra stowage space for weapons and equipment (although the 'Romeo' can accommodate more people if the sonar equipment is removed from the cabin). Being a more modern design, the NH90 should have a longer life expectancy than the ‘Romeo’, but unlike the ‘Romeo’ which is already in service and is based on a family of successful designs, it can also be argued that the NH90 is considerably less tested at an operational level.

Therefore, the argument in favour of the ‘Romeo’ is that it is a mature aircraft with a proven track record of service with Australia’s most important ally. This should mean that that introducing the aircraft into operational service will be a relatively straightforward task.

Possible criticisms
The purchase of the NH90 would certainly have provided more work for Australian companies, because the helicopter would have been assembled by Australian Aerospace in its Brisbane Airport factory, which is already assembling the Army’s Tiger ARH and MRH90 helicopters. Australian Aerospace Chief executive Jens Goennemann has said that the company would have created 750 new jobs if it had won the contract. Goennemann has also been quoted as saying that an Access Economics report commissioned by Australian Aerospace shows that the NH90 NFH would have added a further $661 million to Australia’s GDP between 2011 and 2024 alone.

There is also the possibility that, given the substantial airframe and avionics commonality with the MRH90, there would have been long-term savings in maintenance, logistics and training.

While, as noted above, both aircraft carry lightweight torpedoes, the NH90’s Italian-made Marte Mk2 missile is a more effective anti-ship weapon than the smaller Hellfire fitted to the ‘Romeo’, having both a larger warhead and considerably longer range. If the RAN still has the Norwegian-made Penguin anti-ship missiles it purchased for the Seasprite then these could, in theory, be fitted to the ‘Romeos’.

Image sourced from:


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

Logo - Parliamentary Library Department of Parliamentary Services

Filter by



Tag cloud