Naval Air: It Just Works


June 24, 2011: Australia is buying 24 American MH-60R Seahawk anti-submarine helicopters for its warships. This is a navalized version of the 11 ton U.S. Army UH-60. Australia can use the MH-60Rs for search and rescue, as well as for ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare). The ASW work involves using computers, sonar and radar to search for submarines. This involves sailors on the MH-60Rs staring at a screen most of the time, while manipulating the sensors and computers to detect and locate subs. Once you have a solid location fix, you can launch a torpedo and sink the enemy vessel.

The MH-60R uses a sonar that operates in active (broadcasting) and passive (just listening) mode. This is a dipping sonar, which is lowered into the water from the helicopter using a 806 meter (2,500 foot) cable and winch. The MH-60R is also equipped with a radar system for detecting subs on the surface, or just beneath the surface (with only the periscope or schnorkel, which provides air for the diesel engine, and gets rid of the exhaust fumes, above the surface). The sonar system consists of a dipping sonar and sonobuoys, that are dropped and communicate wirelessly. For search and rescue work, the sonar and all its associated electronics is removed, but the radar stays. The MH-60 can hover low enough to deploy a line to people in the water, and winch them aboard.

Australia had planned to use the naval version of the NH-90 helicopters it had ordered for its ground forces. But the first NH-90s to arrive suffered from poor performance. The overall complaint was poor reliability, design and durability. Many more spare parts have to be stocked than was originally planned. There have been long waits to get needed spares from the manufacturer (NHIndustries). Called the MRH-90 in Australian service, the experience was similar to what the Germans encountered with their NH-90s.

The German Army conducted an evaluation of their new NH-90 helicopters, and found that, for combat missions, another model helicopter should be used whenever possible. A particular problem was the lack of ground clearance. The NH-90 can't land on a piece of ground with any obstacles higher than 16 cm (6.4 inches). That makes many battlefield landing zones problematic. That assumes you can even get on a NH-90 and find a seat. The passenger seats cannot hold more than 110 kg (242 pounds). Combat equipment for German troops weighs 25 kg (55 pounds), meaning any soldier weighing more than 85 kg (187) has to take stuff off, put it on the floor, than quickly put it back on before exiting. Then there's the floor, it's not very sturdy, and combat troops using the helicopter for a short while, cause damage that takes the helicopter out of action for repairs. Worse, there is the rear ramp. It cannot support troops carrying all their equipment, making it useless for rapid exits of combat troops. There is not enough room in the passenger compartment for door gunners. There are no strap downs for larger weapons, like portable rocket launchers or anti-aircraft missiles. The passenger compartment also does not allow for carrying cargo and passengers at the same time. The winch is not sturdy enough for commandoes to perform fast roping operations. And so on. The Germans were not pleased with the NH-90, even though the manufacturer said these problems could be fixed.

The ten ton NH-90 can carry 21 troops or twelve casualties on stretchers, plus the crew of two. It first flew in 1995. The manufacturer is a consortium of French, German, Dutch and Italian firms, and has promised to fix all the problems. The Germans and Australians noted that, when it worked, the NH-90 worked well. But the effort was taking too long for the Australian Navy, where there was a need for helicopters that just worked.


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