Saturday, July 13, 2024

Naval helicopters line up to replace New Zealand’s Super Seasprites – Naval News

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The RfI sought information on five aspects: the naval helicopters themselves, accompanying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), through-life support, associated training systems, and mission support system integration. The helicopters are expected to have a 25-year lifespan, while the UAVs will last just seven years.

A formal tender is awaited, perhaps later this year, and Naval News spoke to three companies jostling for contention.

Discussing each in alphabetical order, Airbus Helicopters confirmed its interest in the Kiwi project and that it is pitching the NH90 NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) variant. The NFH currently serves in six nations, with 127 aircraft delivered.

“NHI is able to offer either a state-of-the-art, off-the-shelf configuration or a customised configuration, as required. It shares about 60% of the parts with its Troop Transport Helicopter (TTH) version that is already in service with the RNZAF.”

Axel Aloccio, President of NHIndustries and Head of NH90 Programme at Airbus

Indeed, the RNZAF has been successfully operating eight NH90 TTHs since 2015. Aloccio therefore pointed out, “The existing operational experience with the RNZAF ensures a proven track record of reliability, with fleet availability frequently above 70%, and performance in New Zealand’s unique environmental conditions. The familiarity of the NZDF with NH90 TTH systems and operational requirements can reduce training times and minimise integration costs.”

The NHIndustries executive added, “Our NH90 NFH offering to NZ will complement and build on the NZDF’s existing fleet and in-country capabilities, provides optimum performance desired by the military, and the best value-for-money proposition.” Furthermore, Airbus has a solid footprint in the country and has plentiful experience supporting the current NH90 fleet. “We remain fully committed to ensuring long-term support to the NZDF,” explained Aloccio.

Naval helicopters line up to replace New Zealand’s Super Seasprites
Airbus Helicopters/NHIndustries is offering the NFH variant of the NH90, with the RNZAF already operating eight similar NH90s. (Credit: Gordon Arthur)

Obviously, Airbus/NHIndustries are undaunted by the bad publicity and experience of neighbouring Australia. The Royal Australian Navy handed its six MRH90 helicopters over to the Australian Army in 2022, and then Australia suddenly, and somewhat whimsically, grounded and retired the entire MRH90 fleet after a fatal accident in July 2023.

Moving on to Leonardo, a spokesperson explained:

Whilst we await full details from the New Zealand Ministry of Defence in the form of a request for price, we can say that Leonardo will put forward the AW159 Wildcat helicopter for the crewed element of the Maritime Helicopter Replacement programme.”

It added that it is offering the military-certified AWHero for the UAV element of the programme. “Acquiring both crewed and uncrewed systems from the same supplier can reduce complexity and logistics requirements.”

Naval helicopters line up to replace New Zealand’s Super Seasprites
Leonardo is keen for New Zealand’s military to adopt the AW159 Wildcat helicopter, as operated by the Royal Navy. (Credit: UK MoD)

With the Royal Navy as its reference customer, Leonardo claimed the AW159 Wildcat is a proven and cost-effective multirole platform that meets New Zealand requirements and has full support from the UK government. Indeed, Leonardo emphasised the strong relationship between the Royal Navy and RNZN, and that “operating the same platform can enhance naval synergy and knowledge-sharing between the two countries”. The RNZAF has some familiarity with Leonardo products, for it already flies five A109 LUH helicopters.

The spokesperson added that the AW159 has well-refined ship-air interface qualities to support single-spot combatant operations, such as those required for RNZN ships. Furthermore, it “offers interoperability with coalition allies and Five Eyes partners. The helicopter has low operating costs and requires fewer operators and maintainers compared to rival platforms.”

A third vendor is Sikorsky, with the company confirming the MH-60R is on offer. A company spokesperson told Naval News:

“Sikorsky will follow the lead of the US Navy to support procurement of MH-60R Seahawk aircraft by New Zealand via the US government’s Foreign Military Sales programme.”

Naval helicopters line up to replace New Zealand’s Super Seasprites
The Royal Australian Navy is already a current operator of the MH-60R Seahawk helicopter from Sikorsky. (Credit: Gordon Arthur)

The company believes the MH-60R is an “excellent choice” for New Zealand for several reasons. The first is that it provides “synergy with the Royal Australian Navy’s MH-60R fleet, which in 2022 ordered an additional 13 MH-60R aircraft”. Indeed, more than 330 MH-60Rs have been sold globally to nine nations so far, with Spain and Norway the most recent customers after they lodged orders in 2023.

Additionally, there is “an active roadmap to continue modernising aircraft and mission systems capabilities to ensure anti-submarine/anti-surface warfare superiority into the 2050s”. Finally, the MH-60R enjoys “a mature sustainment programme that keeps aircraft and mission availability high, and low cost per flight hour”. Incidentally, Super Seasprite engines are the same as those that power the MH-60R.

Naval News also spoke to Commander Alex Trotter, commanding officer of No. 6 Squadron of the RNZAF. This unit, based at Whenuapai in Auckland, operates the Super Seasprite fleet. He explained that three of eight helicopters have been placed in long-term storage, whilst the squadron is focused on having three naval helicopters available from the remaining pool of five.

Cdr Trotter explained that personnel retention “is the main reason why we’re constrained in terms of the amount of aircraft we’re able to operate and maintain”. He noted, “We certainly are understrength in the technical, senior NCO space – we’re talking about sergeant/flight sergeant level – which is why we’ve had to reduce our outputs in order to match what our technical workforce can achieve.”

Nonetheless, he said the SH-2G(I) fleet achieved a rolling-average mission reliability rate of 93% in 2023. However, “Availability is a different story because, on any given day, if we’ve only got like one aircraft available on the flight line, and that aircraft is out for a scheduled servicing, then our availability drops to zero.” Indeed, with just a handful of aircraft flying, regular phased servicing that takes aircraft off the flight line can skew availability rates badly. This explains why one media report in January 2024 cited an availability rate of just 11%.

“We are succeeding,” he said, despite “challenges in the obsolescence space”. When the Super Seasprites were delivered by Kaman in 2015, the package included two aircraft used exclusively as a source of spares. The CO added, “The good news is that to date we’ve found solutions, so every time we run into an obsolescence issue, through working with especially commercial partners, including Kaman who makes it, we seem to manage to find a way forward. Sometimes that costs money though, sometimes we have to open a production line with a subcontractor and it costs money. That’s where, you know, there has been some rightful criticism, I think, of any legacy aircraft in the cost-benefit analysis. How much money do you keep wanting to spend to keep it going, if you need to manufacture new parts for it?” Other Super Seasprite users include Egypt and Peru, neither of which New Zealand has any military relations.

No. 6 Squadron has around 100 personnel – comprising 25 navy aircrew, 70 air force maintainers and five civilians. An embarked flight team aboard ships normally comprises around eight maintenance crew and five aircrew.

Anti-surface warfare missions are their bread-and-butter mission, Cdr Trotter explained:

“Our main job is to provide a weapon and sensor capability to the Anzac-class frigate. So effectively we’ll embark to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance taskings. We’ll build what we call a recognised maritime picture around the ship out to a range of 200 miles using various sensors, including the radar, the FLIR, literally looking through binos [binoculars]. And then, if need be, we can engage those targets using the Penguin. If it’s a smaller target, we also have a cabin-mounted machine gun. That’s the primary job.”

Commander Alex Trotter, commanding officer of No. 6 Squadron of the RNZAF

However, these naval helicopters still have to be jacks of all trades because, “You know, we can’t afford to over-specialise, noting the small number of aircraft we have.”

A pair of hardpoints carries up to two AGM-119 Penguin anti-ship missiles or MK 46 Mod 5A torpedoes. However, the Super Seasprite helicopter type’s anti-submarine warfare role is limited since they have no ability to target submarines with their own sensors. On the other hand, a P-8 could potentially direct them where to drop a torpedo, for instance. The Maritime Helicopter Replacement project should encompass new weapons, as the RNZN is looking for a complete package that includes a maritime strike capability. This is especially important since the navy’s two Anzac-class frigates do not possess integral anti-ship strike weapons. “The SeaCeptor right now is our primary weapon system for the frigates, and I think it’s safe to assume that’s what the project will be looking at is sort of keeping that capability,” noted Cdr Trotter.

Discussing the Super Seasprite platform, the squadron CO said, If you compare it to some modern helicopters, like the ones we’re looking at for the Maritime Helicopter Replacement project, clearly it comes up short in some areas, especially the modernisation of the systems. But that’s almost like comparing a 1990s car to a modern car.” Cdr Trotter could not discuss the replacement helicopter programme candidates in detail, other than to say, “I think they’re all really awesome, capable machines. And, you know, from my perspective, I’m just really looking forward to getting something that’s modern, reliable and deployable.”

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