Australia buys 24 new MH-60 Seahawk naval helicopters


The Australian government has approved the acquisition of 24 MH-60R Seahawk ‘Romeo’ naval combat helicopters at a cost of over AU$3 billion, the Australian Ministry of Defence has announced.

The 2009 Defence White Paper committed the Australian government to equipping naval warships with a new combat helicopter capable of conducting a range of maritime missions with advanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities and the ability to fire air-to-surface missiles. This announcement delivers on that commitment, the Australian Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced.

The new helicopters will replace the Australian Navy’s current combat helicopter capability provided by 16 Seahawk S-70B-2 helicopters and will also provide the air to surface strike capability which was to have been provided by the cancelled Seasprite programme.

This decision follows a 15-month competitive acquisition process involving the Sikorsky-Lockheed Martin built MH-60R and the NATO Helicopter Industries NH90 NFH assembled by Australian Aerospace.

The Australian government has chosen the ‘Romeo’ helicopter because it represents the best value for money for taxpayers and was the lowest risk option, the Australian MoD said.

The ‘Romeo’ is a proven capability currently operated by the United States Navy. The United States Navy has accepted around 100 ‘Romeos’ which have accumulated 90 000 flying hours, including on operational deployments.

The helicopters are largely military off-the-shelf built by Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin and will be purchased through the Foreign Military Sales process from the US Navy.

The Ministry of Defence has signed a Letter of Agreement for the acquisition with the United States Government.

The first two helicopters will arrive in mid-2014 for testing and evaluation with operations expected to commence in mid-2015.

Acquisition of 24 ‘Romeos’ means that Navy will have the capacity to provide at least eight warships with a combat helicopter at the same time, including ANZAC Class frigates and the new Air Warfare Destroyers. The remainder will be based at HMAS Albatross in Nowra, New South Wales, and will be in various stages of the regular maintenance and training cycle.

They will be equipped with a highly sophisticated combat systems designed to employ Hellfire air-to-surface missile and the Mark 54 anti-submarine torpedo.

The Government will work with Australian Small-to-Medium Enterprises to identify opportunities to form part of the ‘Romeo’ global supply chain.

The Government has established a joint working group between Defence and the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research to progress Australian industry involvement in the project.

The Seahawks will fill the gap left by the disastrous Seasprite programme, which failed to provide fully working helicopters. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Australian Navy developed a requirement for intermediate helicopters to operate from both ANZAC class frigates and an Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) it had hoped to build in conjunction with Malaysia. The OPVs, being smaller than the Anzac class, required a smaller helicopter than those being operated by the Navy at the time. In 1997, the Australian government signed a A$667 million contract with Kaman to purchase 11 upgraded Super Seasprites. However, the OPV was effectively abandoned in February 1998, when Malaysia selected a German tender. The Royal Australian Navy began operating SH-2G(A) Super Seasprites in 2003.

By February 2007, ten Super Seasprites had been delivered to the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, but as early as 2005 up to 40 deficiencies had been identified in the helicopters, including their inability to operate in bad weather and low light conditions, and their inability to meet Australian airworthiness certification standards. This led to the helicopters being restricted to “passenger and supply transport in good weather”, and in May 2006 to the complete grounding of the squadron. The problems were attributed to the fitting of a late 1990s avionics package to a 1960s airframe.

In February 2007 the project was running six years over schedule, and its cost had ballooned out to A$1.1 billion. Following a review of the project, the Australian Government cancelled the contract for the helicopters on March 5, 2008. Australia returned its SH-2G(A)s to Kaman.