Bell Helicopter’s design for the Joint Multi Role Technology Demonstrator initiative which, if successful, may influence US Navy rotorcraft policy from 2030 onwards. (Bell)

This year’s Farnborough International Airshow held in the United Kingdom in July saw a number of significant announcements regarding the naval support helicopter domain, with acquisitions ongoing and being aggressively pursued around the globe.

The show saw the signing of a Strategic Partnering Arrangement (SPA) between the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Leonardo Helicopters UK (formerly AgustaWestland), part of Leonardo-Finmeccanica on 11 July. This appears to be mainly cosmetic as a statement from the UK government and the company’s statement announcing the news was quick to point out the SPA has no financial value. However, the government may well redouble the efforts of its export organisation, the UK Trade and Industry Defence and Security Organisation (UKTI DSO) to promote the company’s naval support helicopters, such as the AW-159 Wildcat and AW-101 Merlin, whenever it attends international trade events such as the Singapore Airshow.

The first international sales success for Leonardo Helicopters came as a result of winning the Republic of Korea’s (RoK) Maritime Operational Helicopter programme. The Defence Acquisition Programme Administration, which oversees defence procurement for the RoK, placed an order for eight AW-159 HMA2 Wildcat naval support helicopters in January 2013, ousting the perceived Sikorsky SH-60R Seahawk favourite. Reasons for the decision include the fact that the RoKN (RoK Navy) is already an operator of the old AgustaWestland/Leonardo Lynx Mk.99/A and that the contract negotiations directly with the European company proved more favourable than dealing directly with the US government through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process, the latter process being necessary for the potential acquisition of the SH-60R. The AW-159s are expected to operate from the RoKN’s ‘Incheon’ class frigates that have been replacing the fleet’s older ‘Pohang’ class corvettes and ‘Ulsan’ class frigates.

The decision to quickly acquire a helicopter capable of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) stemmed from the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, a ‘Pohang’ class corvette, on 26 March 2010, which a Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group, involving experts from Australia, Canada, Sweden, the UK and the US, concluded was a result of a torpedo attack from a Korean People’s Navy (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s [DPRK] naval force) submarine.

On 15 June the first four AW-159s arrived in the RoK and will begin the usual flight and weapons testing before they are fully accepted for service during 2017. The helicopter’s mission systems will include the Thales Compact FLASH Sonics low-frequency, long-range dipping sonar system and the Selex/Leonardo Seaspray-7000E X-band (8.5-10.68GHz/Gighertz) maritime surveillance radar, which is also integrated on the Royal Navy’s Wildcat HMA.2 (the local designation for the AW-159) aircraft. The Seaspray 7000E provides the operator with a multi-mode air-to-surface, air-to-air and air-to-ground surveillance capability, along with weather detection.

The RoKN received the first four of eight AW-159s in June which will be operated from the force’s ‘Incheon’ class frigates once they have achieved operational clearance. (Leonardo)

The Wildcats are expected to be armed with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ Spike NLOS air-to-surface missiles, the Korea Agency for Defence Development’s indigenous K-745 Cheong Sangeo (Blue Shark) lightweight torpedoes and depth charges. Additional roles will include Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW); Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR),; and Search and Rescue (SAR). The final four AW-159s should be delivered by the end of 2016.

A Wildcat HMA.2 helicopter of the Fleet Air Arm’s 700(W) Naval Air Squadron conducting flying trials near HMS Monmouth in 2013. The RoKN has had four of these aircraft delivered with four more to arrive before the end of the year. (Royal Navy)

It is also planned for the Republic of Korea Marine Corps (RoKMC) to operate the Korea Aerospace Industry’s (KAI) KUH-1 Surion medium-lift utility helicopter in an amphibious troop carrying role aboard its ‘Dokdo’ class amphibious assault ships. This variant first flew on 19 January and when delivered it will be fitted with a folding main rotor, a floatation system and an auxiliary fuel tank to give it a good littoral ship-to-shore range. Up to 40 amphibious KUH-1s are expected to be produced with the first deliveries starting in 2017.

The Philippines government became the third customer for the AW-159 (after the UK and RoK) on 29 March 2016 when defence secretary Voltaire T. Gazmin signed a $115 million contract for two AW-159s with Leonardo’s senior vice president for sales and strategic planning Stefano Bortoli. ’Leonardo’s bid came in just under the approved budget for the contract of $116 million. The helicopters will be delivered from Leonardo’s plant in Yeovil, southwest England and will be equipped primarily for both the ASW and ASuW roles. This is the Hukbong Dagat ng Pilipinas (Philippine Navy’s) first truly ASW capable helicopter, the Philippines government said in an official statement. Manila is reacting as best as it can to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) aggressive territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. While the Philippine Navy alone cannot face down this threat, it can show what a government statement called ‘a minimum credible deterrence posture’ by modernising key aspects of its armed forces. “After more than four decades of aspiring to improve its capability, our navy has found optimism in this anticipated acquisition of a new state of the art equipment and weaponry to address the requirements of anti sub-surface naval operations,” Mr. Gazmin said upon the announcement of the acquisition. He said that the AW-159s would bring “a high degree of confidence and reliability” to the navy’s operations. Both helicopters are scheduled for delivery 900 days after contract signature in 2018 with the agreement covering multi-year aircraft support and personnel training.

The Tentera Laut DiRaja Malaysia (TLDM/Royal Malaysian Navy) has also been conducting preliminary evaluations of the AW-159 with a potential requirement for six helicopters. It would operate these from its new Littoral Combat Ships/Second Generation Patrol Vessels, six of which are expected to be delivered from 2017. While the Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk and the Airbus Helicopters H-225M are also being considered, the TLDM is already familiar with the AgustaWestland/Leonardo Super Lynx 300 of which it has six. Away from new sales, Leonardo also made an announcement during the Farnborough event that it had received a contract for an avionics and engine upgrade for five Lynx Mk.95 naval support helicopters in service with the Marinha Portuguesa (Portuguese Navy).

Everyone Benefits

Tracing helicopter ownership becomes interesting when it causes a knock-on effect, particularly when one country benefits from the rejection of helicopters from another. The Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) attempt to acquire eleven Kaman SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite as an intermediate naval support helicopter to operate from its ‘ANZAC’ class frigates and its planned Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) ended with the project being cancelled in March 2008. Technical difficulties and delays provoked huge cost overruns with the aircraft requiring a series of upgrades to meet the RAN’s ultimate operational requirement and airworthiness standards. However, the Royal New Zealand Navy, which also purchased five SH-2G(NZ)s at the same time as the original Australian contract in 1997, approached Kaman in 2012 about taking ten of the RAN’s rejected aircraft together with a flight simulator. The agreement was successfully concluded on 19 April 2013 with the announcement that the ten modified and upgraded ex-RAN aircraft would replace the navy’s existing five SH-2G(NZ) aircraft.

A Royal New Zealand Navy SH-2G(NZ) Seasprite helicopter after departing the amphibious assault ship USS America in the Pacific. Peru will field five ex-New Zealand SH-2G(NZ)s by 2018. (US Navy)

According to the New Zealand government these aircraft, which were originally manufactured in the 1960s and 1980s, have undergone “a complete re-build of the body to a point where it is regarded as new and the fitting of new avionics, engines, wiring, software, fittings, and weapons and sensor systems.” These upgrades provide the aircraft with an additional 10000 hours of service life taking them out to 2030. The five original SH-2G(NZ)s were subsequently sold to the Marina de Guerra del Perú (MGP/Peruvian Navy) in October 2014. At Farnborough Kaman announced that its Air Vehicles and MRO (AVMRO) division had agreed a $39.8 million contract with General Dynamics Mission Systems-Canada (GDMSC) to modernise those aircraft for use by the MGP. “We look forward to providing remanufactured and upgraded aircraft for the nation’s long-term defence requirements,” said Brian Fava, vice president of air and naval systems for GDMSC. Preliminary design work began in 2014 with the final implementation phase scheduled to conclude by the end of 2018. Kaman will remanufacture and upgrade four of the aircraft at its Bloomfield, Connecticut facility while GDMSC will provide the integrated mission system.

Unmanned Ahoy

According to a number of Indian national media reports during June, the Indian government could be looking to purchase up to 40 General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) through the FMS process. Indian defence ministry officials talking after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington DC in early June said that a Letter of Request (LOR) for the purchase of 22 of the UAVs for the Indian Navy had been submitted to the US government on 17 June. The MQ-1 would be used by the navy over the extensive Indian Ocean employing its endurance in excess of 35 hours to counter increasing People’s Liberation Army Navy incursions into the region.

On 17 June India’s MoD issued a letter of request to the US DoD for the acquisition of 22 MQ-1 Predator UAVs for the Indian Navy. (General Atomics)

According to reports, the Indian Air Force is also in the market for armed UAVs which would combine ISR missions with a kinetic threat. The Reuters news agency reported that Vivek Lall, chief executive of US and international strategic development at General Atomics, confirmed the Indian interest and added that detailed discussions were being conducted between the two governments. In 2015, the US government gave the company approval to market its products to India. At Farnborough, General Atomics announced that it was expanding its presence in India by opening an office in New Delhi by the end of the year. A company statement, confirmed by Linden Blue, the firm’s chief executive officer, revealed that it “plans to increase collaboration with India in the areas of maritime security and maritime domain awareness, which are key missions for the Indian Ministry of Defence and the Indian Navy.” Another move into India with relevance to naval helicopter programmes is the decision by Airbus Helicopters to position Mahindra Aerostructures as a Tier 1 parts supplier for the company’s AS-565MBe Panther naval support helicopter which is assembled at Marignane in southern France.

India has a number of long-running helicopter programmes including the Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH), Naval Multi-Role Helicopter and the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Helicopter programmes. The NUH alone may require up to 100 helicopters to operate in the maritime environment and onboard ships. Should Airbus Helicopters’ bid of the AS-565MBe Panther be successful for any of these programmes, Airbus Helicopters’ director Fabrice Cagnat believes that the deal with Mahindra would lay the basis for “a rapid acceleration in terms of industrialising production in India” which would lead to India becoming the global hub for AS-565 family production.

An AS-565MB Panther conducts deck landing qualifications with the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima in 2008. India’s Mahindra Aerostructures could benefit from future AS-565 family orders. (US Navy)

Speed and Range

When discussing the military rotorcraft in the maritime environment it is hard not to include the Bell-Boeing MV-22B Osprey. As both of the aircraft’s manufacturers have been saying for over a decade, this is a vertical take-off and landing asset with the range and speed of a fixed-wing aircraft. Although the MV-22B is currently a utility lift aircraft of the United States Marine Corps (USMC), the significance of its potential is beginning to grow in line with the increasing maritime security requirements of nations around the South and East China Seas.

A United States Marine Corps MV-22B aircraft lands on board HMAS Canberra off the north east coast of Hawaii during Exercise RIM OF THE PACIFIC 2016. (Royal Australian Navy)

The MV-22B continues to practice interoperability with other navies and on a variety of platforms. The latest of these was during the large Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise this summer. A USMC MV-22B flew several hundred nautical miles from the US Navy’s USS America eponymous class amphibious assault ship, to land on the RAN’s HMAS Canberra amphibious assault ship. The exercise was the first major international engagement for the HMAS Canberra as well as for the RAN’s new MH-60R Seahawks and NH Industries’ MRH-90 naval support helicopters. According to Commander Adrian Capner, the air commander onboard HMAS Canberra, the landing demonstrated “that we are capable of interacting with our coalition partners, in particular the United States. It also shows that we can adapt and remain agile to operate a whole range of international aircraft, not just aircraft in the Australian fleet.” The Australian Department of Defence has had discussions over the potential acquisition of MV-22Bs for its own forces but this has not to date resulted in any firm statement of requirement.

In contrast, Japan’s worries over the maritime and territorial expansion of the PRC in the East China Sea, as well as the ongoing belligerent attitude of the DPRK, become the first international customer for the MV-22B in 2015 when the government committed to the first five of a requirement that is expected to eventually number 17 aircraft. On 19 July the US DoD announced that the Bell-Boeing Joint Project Office had been awarded a $544 million modification to an existing contract to build the first four of Japan’s MV-22Bs. This order is expected to be fulfilled by May 2020.

In terms of the MV-22B as a maritime utility aircraft, the lessons that the Royal Navy learned during the brief Falklands/Malvinas conflict of 1982 should not be forgotten. In an emergency, either military or civilian, when ships have been laden with stores and quickly dispatched to an area of operations, there is invariably a need to cross-deck supplies from one ship to another. While standard helicopters can do this, the ability of the MV-22B to carry a heavy weight of stores internally and underslung operating at range, with speed and endurance is of clear benefit. As a comparison, the MV-22B can carry 20000 pounds/lbs (9070 kilograms/kgs) of internal or 15000lbs (6800kgs) underslung cargo, compared to the 8000lbs (3630kgs) load of the Sikorsky CH-53D Sea Stallion.

Finally, the US DoD managed Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration (JMRTD) programme is expected to witness its first demonstration flights in 2017. This programme involves Bell Helicopter’s V-280 Valor tiltrotor and the Boeing-Sikorsky SB-1 Defialt co-axial rotorcraft. The results of this demonstration will help to structure the way forward for the creation of a Future Vertical Lift (FVL) aircraft. This will have maritime implications as the FVL is intended to replace all of the US military-operated Boeing AH-64E Apache gunships as well as Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawk SH-60 Seahawk family medium-lift and naval support utility helicopters over the next three to four decades. This might lead to a much more capable rotorcraft operating from surface combatants, potentially eclipsing the strength and performance for which the US Navy’s SH-60R Seahawk is already renowned.

Bell Helicopter’s design for the Joint Multi Role Technology Demonstrator initiative which, if successful, may influence US Navy rotorcraft policy from 2030 onwards. (Bell)