In mid-2017 South Korea received the last of the eight British made AW159 Wildcat helicopters ordered in 2013. These are for the new locally built FFX frigates. South Korea is trying to develop the ability to build such helicopters locally but that has proved to be more daunting a task than being able to build the warships that carry them.
The Wildcat is based on the earlier Super Lynx and Lynx naval helicopters. The British Army and Royal Navy have also ordered AW159s. Similar in size and capability to the U.S. SH-60 Seahawk, these two helicopters often compete with each other for export sales and generally dominate the market for naval helicopters..
South Korea plans to build 15 or more FFXs and each will require two Wildcats, even though these frigates often go to sea with only one. The six ton Wildcat has a normal endurance of 90 minutes. This can be extended to 270 minutes carrying max fuel, staying at low altitude (2,000 meters/6,000 feet) and moving slowly. This is how the South Korean AW159s will often operate because their main function is ASW (anti-submarine warfare). While top speed is 290 kilometers an hour that would rarely be used because it burns so much fuel so quickly. The AW159 can operate up to 490 kilometers from where it took off.
For ASW operations the AW159 carries an AESA radar to find small subs (and other small ships) on the surface and dipping sonar to detect submerged subs. Most North Korean warships are small, including most of their submarines. While the ASW electronics are European the one or two anti-submarine torpedoes carried are South Korean made K745 models torpedoes, which weigh 280 kg (616 pounds) each and have a range of up to 19 kilometers in the water and a top speed of 83 kilometers an hour. The AW159 can also carry depth charges but the lightweight torpedoes are the preferred, and most effective way to deal with subs.
For surface targets AW159 can carry up to four long-range (25 kilometers) Israeli Spike missiles. This version of Spike is called NLOS (Non Line-Of-Sight). Each one weighs 70kg (155 pounds), twice what the next largest version. Spike is a series of anti-tank (or whatever) missiles with ranges from 200-25,000 meters. Spike NLOS can be fired at a target the operator cannot see (but someone else, with a laser designator, can see). Spike NLOS is usually fired from helicopters equipped with a laser designator.
South Korea wants to use Spike NLOS off their west coast, to help block North Korean attempts to invade South Korean islands near the maritime border. An AW159 with Spike NLOS only has to be about 40 meters (122 feet) high to spot something 25 kilometers away. The Spike NLOS has multiple guidance systems, including a live video feed that allows the pilot to fly the missile into to the target, or use the image of the selected target to have the missile home in by itself (“fire and forget”). On the downside Spike NLOS is expensive, costing over $250,000 each.
In cargo mode AW159s can carry seven passengers or half a ton of cargo.
The first FFX frigate entered service in early 2013. These are 3,200 ton ships and are each armed with a 127mm gun, eight anti-ship or cruise missiles, three torpedo tubes, a RAM anti-missile launcher, and a Phalanx anti-missile gun system and a hanger for one helicopter. The ships are highly automated, requiring a crew of only 140. Top speed is 61 kilometers an hour. Range is 8,000 kilometers. Most of the equipment (including electronics) and weapons are locally built. South Korea plans to build at least fifteen of these ships. The first six were all to be in service by 2016. The first ship in the class, the Ulsan, cost over $110 million. South Korea hopes to export the FFX to many navies who want a quality, low cost, warships. Meanwhile, South Korea has also built larger warships and is getting more into submarine production.