With naval expansion happening across the world, maritime helicopter operators can cross the gamut of options from the most ‘built-for-purpose’ helicopters to breathing new life into old machines.
The military helicopter market is currently in ebb rather than flow. The relative lack of completely new designs has fed an upgrade market for many military helicopter types, although some smaller fleet operators in Asia-Pacific have traded in their older 1960s-70s analogue rotorcraft for newer and more expensive yet more capable ‘glass cockpit’ equipped machines.
A survey published in April 2017 by Indian market research company Absolute Reports, entitled The Global Military Rotorcraft Market 2017-2027, stated that “the global military rotorcraft market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 4.14% over the forecast period driven by the need to replace aging fleets and enhance capabilities pertaining to disaster relief operations.”
Governments across the world are increasingly favouring the procurement of multi-mission helicopters, including in the maritime most types have been developed as either anti-submarine or anti-surface warfare capable.
There is a necessity now with respect to military maritime rotorcraft that they be part of a ship’s system of systems, rather than just a lone platform carrying out tasks semi-independently of the naval platform. As is the trend with most military rotorcraft, there is no longer any perceived value in an air asset that is only specialised in one activity. Multi-mission rotorcraft need to be adaptable to deliver everything from more covert electronic intelligence (ELINT) through direct kinetic action such as anti-submarine (ASW) and anti-surface warfare (ASuW).
Absolute Reports, in its document, states that “the multi-mission and maritime helicopter segment of the overall market] will account for 43.7 percent of the total global rotorcraft market over the forecast period, followed by attack, transport, and training helicopters.”
As defence budgets have either been declining or experiencing minimal growth, governments are looking to increase value for money by extending the role of helicopters bought for the military. Governments are looking all at multi-mission rotorcraft possibilities, from dedicated ‘made-for-purpose helicopters such as Leonardo’s AW159 Wildcat and Sikorsky’s UH-60 variants, including the submarine hunting MH-60R and the more utility minded MH-60S.
Nowhere has an MH-60 programme been more successfully implemented that with the Royal Australian Navy and its acquisition of 24 MH-60Rs capable of both ASW and ASuW. Within three years of the first aircraft delivery in 2013 the RAN had all 24 helicopters. The multi-mission capability of the aircraft is underscored by its ability to engage in secondary missions including search and rescue, vertical replenishment, naval surface fire support, logistics support, personnel transport, medical evacuation, and VHF/UHF/link communication relay. Perhaps the most complete definition of an all-round helicopter capability.
The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) is persisting with its requirement for a dedicated sub-hunter and has plans to procure 12 anti-submarine warfare helicopters for $780 million, with a caveat that it wants technology transfer and other benefits in return.
“(We) plan to push for an offset package with the size of around $400 million,” said a spokesperson for the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA). In January 2013, the South Korean government made a surprise decision to buy eight AW-159 Wildcat anti-submarine helicopters, a type used by the UK’s Royal Navy. Whether this decision will be repeated is not know and bids are expected this year leading to an acquisition project and fielding of the new aircraft by 2020. In addition to Leonardo’s AW159, the competition expects to include Sikorsky’s MH-60R and NH Industries’ NH-90.
Civil Into Military
Budget restrain has sparked the growth in civil-to-military projects witnessed by Airbus Helicopter’s HForce concept; the adaption of a generic weapon system onto military versions of Airbus Helicopters’ commercial helicopter range (H125M, H145M, H225M). Such aircraft are retrofitted have the potential to be turned into light attack helicopters fitted with guns such as the FN Herstal HMP400, unguided rockets (Thales FZ231) and cannons even larger caliber weapons (Nexter NC621). The further addition of a sensor such as a Wescam MX15 were give a high degree of coordination between sensor and shooter.
“This is an important milestone towards the qualification of HForce on the H145M, which is planned for end 2018”, said Axel Humpert, head of H145 Programme. “The positive results of this first ballistic development test are the outcome of a very good and professional cooperation between all parties involved, especially with the Hungarian Ministry of Defence.”
The first ballistic firing tests were conducted in Hungary during October 2017, followed by the successful firing of laser guided rockets by the H145M in early December 2017. Airbus Helicopters took the aircraft to the Älvdalen test range, part of the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration flight test centre. The helicopter then fired Thales FZ275 laser guided rockets downrange.
In so far as this could be part of a maritime protection force, Airbus lists the potential of the H145M’s mission profiles to include maritime counter-terrorism and piracy, exclusive economic zone (EEZ) surveillance and control, boarding parties deployment, search and rescue, and medical and casualty evacuation.
Airbus’ more dedicated maritime helicopter is its medium twin-engine Panther AS565 MBe. It is well established with over 250 Panthers already serving in 20 countries. One of the most notable operators is the United States Coast Guard with over 100 helicopters in operation along its various coastlines.
In early January 2018 the Indonesian Navy (Tentara Nasional Indonesia – Angkatan Laut, or TNI-AL) received two additional AS565 Panthers to go with the two initial aircraft that it received in November 2016. The TNI-AL’s full requirement is for 11 Panthers. They are equipped at state owned PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PTDI) located in Bandung with an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) suite which includes a dipping sonar and torpedo launch systems.
Extending the service life of a helicopter is, ultimately still a cheaper option than buying new. Sener Aerospace was appointed by the Spanish Navy to modernise seven of its 1974 vintage Agusta Bell AB212 helicopters. Spain, one of the European countries still suffering budgeting problems due to its poor economy, may not have the latest designs, but the AB212 fleet will be given a new lease of life which will be extended by 15 years.
Following a power generation system upgrade the helicopters will have new avionics systems including a glass cockpit, NVG compatibility, integrated mission systems with a modern communications suite. Mission systems include a new surveillance radar, EO/IR sensor, defensive aides and GPS guidance with moving map.
According to Sener Aerospace, the benefits that the upgrades will bring mean that the Spanish Navy can now deploy the AB212s on multi-national missions in low-level threat environments. They will also be used for maritime surveillance operating off Spain’s Oceanic Patrol Vessel (OPVs).