Project Air 9000 Phase 8 is shaping up to be one of the most keenly-fought Australian defence competitions in a long time. Before the competitive process had even formally begun, the two contenders to supply the Australian Navy’s new combat helicopter – Australian Aerospace with the NATO Helicopter Industries NH90 NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) on one side and the Sikorsky-Lockheed Martin built MH-60R Romeo sourced through the United States Navy on the other – were preparing their case and readying their teams for what is set to be a real competition. The starting pistol was fired on 28 April when the Defence Materiel Organisation released project solicitation documents to the USN and Australian Aerospace.

“This marks the transition of Project Air 9000 Phase 8 to a formal competitive solicitation phase,” says Greg Combet, Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science. He adds: “A competitive process is consistent with the Kinnaird and Mortimer procurement reforms. It will allow the companies to offer innovative solutions that satisfy the capability, cost and schedule requirements and detail what opportunities they will offer local industry.”

The responses are due on July 24, which seems an unusually short timeframe for an acquisition of such complexity, importance and expense – though presumably the Commonwealth feels that they have already received a great deal of data about both competitors. Another unusual feature is that the tender pits a private European company against the might of the US Government. Canberra is no doubt hoping that Air 9000 Phase 8 will run smoother than the last naval helicopter project which involved the ill-fated Kaman SH-2G9(A) Super Seasprite. Australia ordered 11 Super Seasprites – upgraded former US Navy SH-2Fs – in 1997, but problems, primarily with the Integrated Tactical Avionics System and later the Automatic Flight Control System, resulted in the government finally ditching the project in February 2008. By that time the project was seven years behind schedule, 47 per cent over budget and no sign of delivering full functionality until at least 2010-11.

As a result, the government said in its 2009 Defence White Paper that “as a matter of urgency” it would acquire at least 24 new naval combat helicopters to provide eight or more aircraft concurrently embarked on ships at sea. The new helicopter will replace the Navy’s existing Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk anti-submarine warfare helicopters as well as fill the operational need left by the cancelled Super Seasprite project. “These new aircraft will possess advanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities, including sonar systems able to be lowered into the sea and air-launched torpedoes, as well as an ability to fire air-to-surface missiles,” according to the Defence White Paper.

Project Air 9000 Phase 8 received first pass approval from the Government in February, with Defence minister John Faulkner saying at the time that a competition would be held between the MH-60R and NH90. “The competitive process would commence in the next few months with the government making a final decision about the new helicopter in 2011,” he said at the time. This would allow the helicopters to be delivered from 2014.

The fleet of combat helicopters will form the centerpiece of naval combat aviation to beyond 2040, says the Government. “The new helicopter will greatly extend the eyes and ears of our surface fleet and allow the conduct of combat and support operations in the complex and demanding maritime environment,” according to Minister Faulkner. “Any decision Government makes in 2011 will take into account all relevant considerations, including capability, cost, interoperability with other ADF capabilities, Australian industry opportunities, risk and value for money,” says Faulkner.

The DoD says it is continuing to analyse the most efficient number of aircraft to provide the required level of capability, with this to be at least 24 to provide at least eight helicopters concurrently embarked on ships at sea. “The helicopter is to be primarily operated as a combat aircraft in anti-surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare. In addition to its combat roles the helicopter will also provide a secondary role of aviation combat support and utility for Navy’s surface fleet,” says the DoD.
Australian Aerospace is confident that the NH90 NFH has what it takes to meet Australia’s requirements. “We believe the NFH is the world’s leading helicopter in its class,” says Australian Aerospace. “It is the most technologically advanced helicopter – it’s made of corrosion-resistant composite material, uses the latest fly-by-wire technology, has much greater cabin capacity [than the MH-60R], is much more flexible, has the most advanced flotation and other safety features and carries the most potent weapons system,” the manufacturer adds. The twin-engine, medium-size helicopter is produced by the NH Industries consortium, comprising AgustaWestland (32 per cent), Eurocopter (62.5 per cent) and Fokker (5.5 per cent).

In terms of roles, the manufacturer says the NFH is the only helicopter which can meet the RAN’s requirements of a truly multi-role helicopter for both naval combat and support missions at the same time as meeting the government’s stated requirement of reducing and rationalising the types of helicopters in service with the ADF. “Primarily conceived for autonomous anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare, the NFH is also designed for missions such as vertical replenishment, search and rescue, boarding party delivery, medical evacuation, disaster relief and troop transport,” says Australian Aerospace.

The helicopter’s weapons system allows it to conduct maritime surveillance and utility operations, anti-submarine warfare with up to two torpedoes, anti-surface ship warfare with up to two anti-ship missiles, anti-surface warfare – detecting, tracking, classification, identification and attack on hostile vessels using over-the-horizon capability. The helicopter can also operate combined operations with one torpedo and one anti-ship missile. The NFH’s secondary ship-borne and land-based roles include vertical replenishment, search and rescue, troop transport and civil disaster relief operations. The helicopter is capable of carrying six fully-equipped combat troops, along with full anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface ship warfare equipment. As a result, the helicopter is capable of conducting all missions that are currently performed by the Seahawks and would have been performed by the cancelled Super Seasprites, according to Australian Aerospace. The NFH would bring additional complexity when it comes to landing systems as it uses the Harpoon Decklock, and the ANZAC Frigate Recovery System can be modified for its use, according to the company.

A big bonus, according to the manufacturer, is the NFH’s commonality with the MRH90 which is already entering service with Australia’s Army and Navy. The NFH has 80 per cent commonality with the MRH90 multi-role helicopter, with a custom-made mission system, and as a result offers significant economies in areas such as training, purchasing of parts, maintenance and through-life support. The helicopter does not have maturity on its side, however, thanks to delays on the programme. This year the helicopter is scheduled to be in service with the navies of the Netherlands, France, Norway and Italy, with the Netherlands taking delivery of its first helicopter in late April. The type has also been selected by Belgium, with total orders from the five European navies running to 110. But Australian Aerospace counters: “The NFH is a 21st century helicopter for the 21st century, while the competing helicopter’s airframe was devised nearly 40 years ago. This means the competing helicopter is approaching the end of its active life, while the NFH is at the start of a 30-year active service life.”

Australian Aerospace also brings to the table local economic benefits, with the NFH to be assembled at the manufacturer’s Brisbane facility, while an order for the competing MH-60R would create jobs in the United States. “There’s a straight choice between creating jobs in Australia and jobs in the US,” says Dr Jens Goennemann, chief executive officer of Australian Aerospace, which already has more than 1,100 staff in Australia and New Zealand. The manufacturer recently announced that if the NFH was selected it would create 750 skilled jobs in Australia – around 500 jobs at Australian Aerospace and its partner companies and a further 250 indirect jobs in supporting companies. A further A$1.2 billion would be injected into the Australian economy over 15 years through the programme – on top of the A$2 billion economic activity that Australian Aerospace already contributes to the Australian economy through its existing military helicopter programmes.

Local industry would be heavily involved in any successful bid, says the manufacturer. The project would further enhance Australia’s capability in high technology fields, including composite materials, turbine engine assembly, gearboxes and transmission maintenance support, software integration and support, guided weapons acoustics, avionics and computer technology.

Australian Aerospace declines to comment on the team it is assembling for its Air 9000 Phase 8 bid.

Australian Aerospace was so keen to show off the capabilities of the NFH that it brought an Italian Navy helicopter to Australia for a demonstration in late January/early February, coinciding with the Pacific 2010 naval show in Sydney, along with the PT1 NH90 demonstrator. As well as appearing at Pacific 2010, the helicopter conducted demonstrations at HMAS Albatross and performed in the Australia Day celebrations.

“The visit of the NH90 NFH was an outstanding success and demonstrated the helicopter’s world-leading capabilities to senior military officers, politicians, leading public servants, the industry, the media and the public in Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane and Nowra,” says the manufacturer.

It adds: “Among the highlights, the NFH flew over Sydney Harbour during the Australia Day celebrations and demonstrated lowering its sonar over Farm Cove next to the Sydney Opera House. It also spent one week at HMAS Albatross enabling Royal Australian Navy air crews to familiarise themselves with the aircraft.”

The DoD welcomed the opportunity to see the helicopter in operation. “Flying the prototype NFH in Australia presented Navy with an opportunity to informally look at the aircraft’s maturity ahead of its introduction into service with a European navy,” it says.

There is no such demonstration planned in Australia of the MH-60R but if Australia wants to see the type in operation it only has to look at the US Navy’s operation of the aircraft. The USN has taken delivery of 56 MH-60Rs of a planned purchase of 300 aircraft – a factor in its favour both in terms of maturity and interoperability with the USN.

The helicopter is manufactured by Sikorsky, with Lockheed Martin responsible for integrating the helicopter’s digital cockpit, a multi-mode radar, acoustic sonar suite, long-range infra-red camera and other advanced sensors designed to detect, identify, track and engage surface and sub-surface targets. Lockheed Martin is also responsible for integrating a self-defence system to protect the helicopter from missile threats.

Full-rate production of the MH-60R started in early 2006 after USN test squadrons conducted 1,900h of flight and mission systems evaluations. The aircraft was deployed by the USN for the first time from January to July 2009 with the John C Stennis carrier strike group and during exercises in the western Pacific the USN proved the helicopter’s abilities to detect, locate and hunt submarines, says Team Romeo. The type also proved its operational reliability, accomplishing a 95 per cent sortie completion rate and showing it can perform utility and search and rescue missions among other secondary missions. However, it should be noted that the USN uses 2 helicopter variants on a typical deployment – the Romeo in the warfighting role and the MH-60S “Sierra” in a utility helicopter capacity.

Up to 27 MH-60Rs are due to be delivered to the USN this calendar year as part of a five-year contract for 139 aircraft through to 2013. Extra production capability exists to deliver an additional 20 helicopters each year for sale by the US Government to international navies, say the partners.

The USN has been pleased with the type to date, with the USN’s Rear Adm Steve Eastburg, programme executive officer Air ASW, Assault and Special Mission programmes saying: “The enormous multi-mission capability of this platform continues to be leveraged by the warfighter in new and innovative ways. It’s truly a game-changing platform that will deliver powerful capabilities, ranging from low-end to high-end warfare, in the years ahead.” Rear Adm Paul Grosklags, vice commander, Naval Air Systems Command, believes it is “the premier multi-mission helicopter in operation today”.
With the USN, the MH-60R is deployed as the primary anti-submarine and anti-surface weapon system for open ocean and littoral zones. It combines the missions of the SH-60B and SH-60F, which it replaces, into a single multi-mission weapons platform. Secondary missions include search and rescue, vertical replenishment, naval surface fire support, medical evacuation and communications and data relay.

Also in the MH-60R’s favour is the fact that it is less expensive than the NH90 NFH – at least in up front cost – but against it is the fact it is smaller in available internal volume than the NFH and therefore not as well suited to some utility roles as the competition.
Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin announced late last year that if the MH-60R was selected by Australia the deal would be accompanied by a A$1 billion Australian Industry Capability (AIC) package.

Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin recently conducted an Australia-wide assessment of local companies able to participate in the AIC, which involved interviews with more than 40 companies. The partners, along with Team Romeo members CAE (pilot training simulator provider), Raytheon (acoustic sonar and imaging sensors provider) and engine manufacturer General Electric, met with small, medium and large enterprises during a week-long visit to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Team Romeo plans to evaluate the results and invite select companies to join the team ahead of the USN’s formal MH-60R proposal to the government later this year.

“The Team Romeo AIC package has generated a high level of interest among Australian firms interested in long-term, high-value work on a range of projects,” says Team Romeo. It adds: “The plan provides an opportunity for firms to engage not only in the latest Seahawk programmes, but also on other defence programmes and in the global supply chains of the consortium partners.”

Areas where Australian companies have the potential to participate include network centric warfare, cockpit avionics, engine repair and support, airframe refurbishment and remanufacture, training and equipment maintenance, support and testing and logistics support. “The MH-60R will require both near-term manufacturing and long-term maintenance support from Australian industry,” says Chris Clapperton, general manager of business development with Sikorsky.
In return Australian firms would benefit from the world-class innovation and technology which is the result of the 10-year US$1 billion Romeo development and qualification programme.

Purchase of the Romeo by the Commonwealth would provide a fully qualified advanced technology weapons system which will ensure that Australian firms remain at the cutting edge of ASW/ASuW capability, says Team Romeo. The MH-60R programme is supported by the USN’s US$700 million investment in ASW/ASuW mission systems, a planned 300 aircraft acquisition and ongoing technology upgrades funded by the USN, the team adds.”Should the Australian Government select the MH-60R helicopter in early 2011, Team Romeo is serious about growing skilled jobs in Australia,” says Paul Johnson, chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin Australia. “We appreciate the excellent turnout from Australian industry and were impressed with the high quality of those we met,” he adds.

In terms of preference, the DoD has no comment, despite reports late last year that ADF chiefs had recommended the MH-60R as the best candidate and that a sole-source contract would be pursued. The DoD says: “At this time it would be inappropriate to publicly express an opinion on either aircraft other than to say that Defence accepts that both the NFH and the MH-60R would satisfy the primary requirement of a modern maritime combat helicopter.

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