Cutting Edge: ASW Australia’s Naval Combat Helicopter

The Royal Australian Navy now has all of its 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters on strength and is on track for final operational capability at the end of 2018. Nigel Pittaway details the type and its service roadmap

MILITARY MH-60R SEAHAWK

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Aircrew are winched off the flight deck and into HMAS Parramatta’s embarked MH-60R Seahawk.
ABIS Richard Cordell/ Royal Australian Navy

The MH-60R or Romeo, as it is known, is in service with two Royal Australian Navy (RAN) squadrons, an operational support squadron and a training unit, and it regularly deploys to sea aboard the RAN’s major surface combatants. In Australian service, the MH-60R is replacing the earlier Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk fleet that was procured in the late 1980s, which will have been retired by the end of the year.

With anti-submarine (ASW) and antisurface warfare (ASuW) as its primary roles, the Romeo delivers capabilities to the RAN’s Fleet Air Arm that have been lost for decades. Primarily, the new helicopter has an advanced dipping sonar, which the earlier Seahawk does not, and is an important ASW capability that has been missed since the Navy’s Westland Sea King Mk50 helicopters were converted to the utility role in the early 1990s. Second, the MH-60R has an anti-surface attack capability by way of its ability to carry the Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missile, an offensive capability lost when the Fleet Air Arm was forced to retire its Douglas A-4G Skyhawks and Grumman S-2G Trackers in the early and mid-1980s.

The Romeo is already routinely embarked aboard the RAN’s Anzac-class (FFH) and Adelaide-class (FFG) guided missile frigates, and from early 2018 it will be integrated with the three new Hobart-class air warfare destroyers now being acquired. In the second half of the next decade, the Romeo will also serve aboard the nine future frigates to be built in Australian shipyards. In late September, one Romeo was embarked on HMAS Newcastle (an FFG) serving in the Arabian Gulf as part of the Australian Government’s Operation Manitou.

Selection

The MH-60R was the successful contender for Australia’s Naval Combat Helicopter competition, run under the aegis of Project Air 9000 Phase 8, beating the NH Industries NH90 NATO Frigate Helicopter. The Romeo was announced the winner of the competition in 2011, at which time Australia became the first export customer for the helicopter, which has since been selected by Denmark and Saudi Arabia.

The RAN MH-60Rs are almost identical to their US Navy counterparts, which was a deliberate strategy by the Australian project office to de-risk the acquisition programme (which required the helicopters to be in service within a relatively short timeframe) and to leverage the much larger American MH-60R and MH-60S fleet, in terms of both sustaining and upgrading the helicopter throughout its life.

However, in order to address specific sovereign requirements there are some minor differences. These include: a VOR/ ILS (which is already fitted to US Navy MH-60S helicopters); automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast capability; a voice recorder incorporated into the existing crash recorder; an off-aircraft acoustic conversion system for data commonality with RAN systems; additional Link 16 tactical datalink message sets; variable message format for communication with army platforms; and a low-power beacon installation that will allow the use of the ASIST deck recovery system on the Hobart-class destroyers in the automatic modes.

Like their US Navy brethren, RAN MH- 60Rs are equipped with: the Raytheon AQS-22 Airborne Low Frequency Sonar as the primary acoustic sensor; a Telephonics APS-147 multimode radar; Lockheed Martin’s ALQ-210 electronics support measures subsystem; and Raytheon’s AAS- 44C multispectral targeting system, which provides long-range surveillance, target acquisition, tracking, range finding and laser designation of laser-guided munitions. Besides the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, weapons include up to three US Navystandard Mk54 lightweight torpedoes and either a 0.50cal machine gun or 7.62mm general-purpose machine gun mounted in the cabin doorway. Australia’s Romeos also have the Ku-band HawkLink tactical datalink used by US Navy MH-60Rs, but the RAN’s surface ships have not yet been modified and it remains an option for the future.

Delivering the Romeo to Australia

The first two of the 24 on order for the RAN were handed over in a ceremony at Lockheed Martin’s MH-60R production facility in Owego, New York, on December 10, 2013, and departed for Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, the following day. At Jacksonville they joined the RAN’s 725 Squadron, which had been working up on the Romeo alongside US Navy squadrons.

In order to prime the Australian training process, it had been decided to train crews in the United States and for 725 Squadron as the first unit (and later to become the RAN’s Romeo training squadron) to work up alongside their US Navy counterparts.

One significant operating difference between the RAN and US Navy, however, lies in the way the former crews its helicopters. Australian Romeos fly with a pilot in the right-hand cockpit seat and an Aviation Warfare Officer (AvWO) in the left hand seat, together with a sensor operator (SENSO) in the cabin, which allows tactical flexibility and a degree of autonomy. The US Navy operates its Romeos with two pilots and a SENSO, leaving many of the tactical decisions to the host ship, and this difference has meant the American training syllabus has had to be significantly adapted to meet Australia’s requirements.

In November 2014, 725 Squadron arrived back in Australia and commenced flying operations at the Fleet Air Arm’s major shore base at HMAS Albatross (Naval Air Station Nowra) in January 2015, before being formally commissioned the following June. The first-of-class sea trials were conducted aboard one of the Anzac-class frigates during the same year and initial operational capability was declared in September 2015. The 24th and final aircraft was handed over at Owego in July 2016 and the second unit, 816 Squadron, began its transition from the S-70B-2 shortly afterwards.

Capability overview

To find out what the Romeo gives the Fleet Air Arm, AIR International recently spoke with Captain Grant O’Loughlan, Director of Aviation within Navy Strategic Command.

Capt O’Loughlan, himself a former S-70B pilot, said the MH-60R is viewed as an extension of the host ship’s sensors and weapons systems by the RAN, describing the Romeo as a state-of-theart military combat helicopter, which has delivered a large increase in capability over the older S-70B.

He said: “For us, it has provided a quantum leap in anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capability. We have increased the effectiveness of our embarked aviation at sea, and the other benefit is that we’ve bought into the US Navy system.

We’re tapping into a fleet of several hundred and we can draw on that to maintain the capability into the future.” In August, the US Defense Security Co-operation Agency announced that the US State Department had approved a ten-year, $360 million contract to upgrade Australia’s MH-60Rs in step with the US Navy roadmap for continuous improvement of the helicopter’s capabilities. The work will be undertaken under the RAN’s Project Sea 5510, dubbed the Seahawk Capability Assurance Programme.

Capt O’Loughlan explained the thinking: “We want to maintain the effectiveness of the helicopter, so we’ll use the US Navy roadmap to stay aligned with their programme. When we introduced it into service we had a clear goal of how we wanted to do that, which is effectively by a spiral upgrade, rather than waiting for it to reach mid-life and undertake a large upgrade.”

From an ASW perspective, however, the MH-60R is already a huge improvement over the S-70B, which, although a very capable helicopter, lacks a dipping sonar capability, for which Capt O’Loughlan calls the Romeo a game-changer. He said: “From an operational point of view, sonobuoys give you an ability to put a pattern in a local area and try to detect a submarine. Dipping sonar puts a lot more energy into the water and therefore your detection rates are greater and you can continually put it in and take it out of the water wherever you like, so you’re not expending anything.

“With sonobuoys you can operate until you run out of them and then you have to come back, but with a dipping sonar you can put it in the water continually hunt a submarine with a greater level of power. It does change the ASW game considerably, and it provides an increased level of complexity for the submarine commander to counter.”

Training for the Romeo

With the transition well underway of 816 Squadron, the RAN’s operational support squadron, the focus for 725 Squadron is now to train air and ground crews to train the number of personnel to support the end goal of eight ships’ flights. In general terms, a ship’s flight comprises one Romeo helicopter and 19 personnel including two pilots, two AvWOs, two SENSOs and 13 maintenance staff.

Commander Matt Royals is the current Commanding Officer of 725 Squadron and the man responsible for the growth of the Romeo workforce to achieve the desired target by the end of next year, marking the full operating capability milestone. He said the sixth ship’s flight has now been trained and will be followed by a seventh in the middle of next year and the eighth and final flight will follow by the end of 2018. Cdr Royals explained: “Initially, when 725 Squadron stood up, we took on board the first two flights and, at the end of December 2015 when I took over command, I handed over all responsibility for Romeo flights to 816 Squadron, which runs all the flights at sea. We recently stood up the sixth flight, which doesn’t actually embark until the end of the year, but the personnel are there and ready to go to sea.

“The Navy has all 24 aircraft now and I have seven helicopters on 725. I’m also responsible for the two full-motion tactical operational and flight training simulators and as far as the training system goes we’ve also got a great mix of computerbased training, synthetic training and live aircraft training, as well.”

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A Royal Australian Navy MH-60R conducts anti-submarine warfare exercises with HMAS Rankin off the coast of New South Wales in the vicinity of Jervis Bay.
LSIS Sarah Williams/ Royal Australian Navy

One challenge within the MH-60R transition has been to adapt the US Navy curriculum to meet the RAN’s different crew model for the Romeo, as Cdr Royals explained: “Our training in Australia is slightly different, because of the different crew model, so we’ve had to adapt the curriculum the US Navy has given us. We operate slightly differently in our crew model, but the read-across is very good. We have such a good relationship with the US Navy that it really is working well now.

“We’ve established ourselves as a Romeo schoolhouse, and one that is world class, using a mix of computerbased training, simulation and flying to meet the fleet output required for both aircrew and maintainers.”

Operational perspective

The main focus of 816 Squadron, the RAN’s operational support squadron, is to provide parenting and standardisation support to the flights at sea, as well as being responsible for all warfare and tactical development of the MH-60R fleet. The unit’s current Commanding Officer is Commander Anthony Savage, who is tasked with maintaining the growing Romeo capability and, at the same time, retiring the S-70B. The last Bravo deployment to the Middle East (aboard HMAS Arunta) arrived home in August and there are only three helicopters now remaining in service.

Cdr Savage previously served as the project manager for the Romeo acquisition, so he knows the capabilities of the new helicopter very well. He said: “We used to refer to the Bravo as the role-adaptable weapons system, so it could readily change from the warfare environment to afloat logistics support or the support helicopter role. The big difference with the Romeo is that it is a combat helicopter. It has highly complex systems on board, such as airborne low frequency sonar, the multimode radar and the like. We can re-role it as required – and we have procedures to do so – but it’s a combat asset, and if you want it to do something else it comes at a cost. We arguably have the best maritime combat helicopter in the world in the ASW and ASuW space, and its ability to operate in the networked environment with Link 16 and the imaging camera is a significant leap in capability from the Bravo.”

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The embarked aviation department with an MH-60R in the hangar on board HMAS Perth.
ABIS Richard Cordell/Royal Australian Navy

Describing the difference between the RAN and US Navy concepts of operations the differing crew model addresses, Cdr Savage said: “In broad terms the US Navy sees the aircraft as a remote sensor that sends back information to the ship and decisions are made on the ship. With our different crew model, with an AvWO in the left hand seat, we make our own tactical decisions and at times we will be the scene commander, co-ordinating and running the engagement from the helicopter, using RAN surface assets and RAAF assets.”

A current focus is on maturing the mix of stores each flight will take to sea. The next steps will involve working on the integration with Australian and allied fleet units and with the RAAF’s Lockheed AP-3C Orion and Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft, but Commander Savage says he is already very happy with the Romeo’s capabilities: “We’re exceeding expectations in terms of availability and capability. Sometimes we are a bit sceptical of the glossy [sales] brochures, but with the Romeo we certainly got what we asked for.”