With the proliferation of submarine capability in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years, there is an increasing urgency for weapons systems to counter the threat. The need for an organic shipboard Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability was brutally highlighted in May last year, with the sinking of the South Korean naval corvette ROKS Cheonan by a North Korean midget submarine off the island of Baengnyeong. The threat posed to surface combatants and merchant shipping alike in the region has now brought forward programmes to acquire or renew existing ASW capabilities in several countries.
15th Nov 2011
NAVAL COMBAT HELICOPTERS IN ASIA-PACIFIC
Byline: Nigel Pittaway / Melbourne
With the proliferation of submarine capability in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years, there is an increasing urgency for weapons systems to counter the threat.
The need for an organic shipboard Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability was brutally highlighted in May last year, with the sinking of the South Korean naval corvette ROKS Cheonan by a North Korean midget submarine off the island of Baengnyeong.
The threat posed to surface combatants and merchant shipping alike in the region has now brought forward programmes to acquire or renew existing ASW capabilities in several countries.
High on the shopping list of many is a naval combat helicopter, capable of not only countering the undersea threat posed by the submarine, but in these days of multi-role capability, conducting Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) as well.
Most countries already field such a capability, largely based upon legacy platforms that are either in need of sensor and weapons upgrades or replacement by a modern platform. Manufacturers of naval combat helicopters see Asia-Pacific as a growing market and see considerable potential for their products.
Occupying the top end of the capability range are the Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin MH-60R Seahawk, NHI NH 90 Naval Frigate Helicopter (NFH), Russian Ka-27/Ka-28 and AgustaWestland Super Lynx and AW159 Lynx Wildcat.
The MH-60R ‘Romeo’ Seahawk has recently gained its first export success, when Australia ordered 24 to replace its legacy S-70B-2 Seahawks, after a bitter contest with the European NFH and similar battles will be waged in the region in the months to come.
An indication of the importance placed on the region can be gauged by the presence of ‘Team Seahawk’, the industry consortium comprising Sikorsky, Lockheed Martin, General Electric, Raytheon and CAE which markets the Romeo, at the recent 2011 Seoul International Aerospace & Defence Exhibition. Team Seahawk will also have a presence at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) show in Malaysia in December and the Singapore Airshow in February 2012.
Although the NH 90 and Lynx Wildcat have not yet achieved any sales in the region, the Super Lynx is already in service and this may influence current operators to upgrade. The Russian Ka-28 is also used in Asia-Pacific and ASW/ASuW and AEW&C versions are still being marketed by Rosoboronexport.
Industry observers have also identified India and Japan as candidates for a new naval combat helicopter in the not too distant future and countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia also have a medium-term requirement.
As noted, Australia became the first export customer for the MH-60R in June, when it signed a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) agreement with the United States Navy for 24 helicopters.
The Romeos will not only replace the existing S-70B-2 Seahawks but will fill a gap in ASuW capability left vacant when the SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite programme was cancelled in 2008. The helicopter beat the rival NFH to win Phase 8 of the Australian Defence Force’s Project AIR 9000 (Future Naval Aviation Combat System).
The first two are due to enter service in late 2013 and deliveries will be complete by the end of 2016. In service they will serve aboard the Royal Australian Navy’s upgraded ‘Anzac’ class frigates and the future Air Warfare Destroyers, due for delivery from 2014.
The Bangladesh Navy placed an order with AgustaWestland in February last year for two AW109E Power maritime helicopters. Both were delivered to Chittagong in June this year.
Now in service, the helicopters will be used for Search and Rescue, economic zone protection, surface surveillance and maritime security missions. They will be capable of being deployed aboard the modified ‘Ulsan’-class frigate BNS Bangabandhu.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy operates a mix of combat helicopters that have their origins in both eastern and western Europe, but most recently has developed a local derivative of the Eurocopter Dauphin/Panther, known as the Harbin Z-9C.
It has operated a local version of the Aerospatiale Super Frelon, the Changhe Z-8 for several years and is a major export customer for the Kamov Ka-28/29/31, acquired in three versions: Twelve ASW-optimised Ka-29PL helicopters were ordered in 1998, followed by 13 Ka-29PS for Search and Rescue between 1999 and 2009 and finally nine AEW-equipped Ka-31s were ordered in February last year.
The Z-9C is the naval variant of the Z-9B, itself a production version of the Z-9A, and is built locally under the Harbin banner.
In 2008 a new variant of the helicopter was reported in the west for the first time, armed with an Anti-Ship Missile (ASM), but it is not known if this has subsequently entered service.
Earlier this year India issued a Request For Information to industry for what is reportedly called a Naval Multi-Role Helicopter, capable of performing ASW, ASuW and commando operations roles.
The two major contenders are thought to be the MH-60R and NFH and the RFI follows an earlier requirement for up to 16 helicopters. India rejected a US offer for an FMS sale of the MH-60R early this year.
The Indian Navy relies on the Westland-built Sea King Mk.42A/B for ASW work and has the similar Mk.42C and a small number of ex-US Navy Sikorsky UH-3Hs for utility operations.
Several versions of the Kamov Ka-27 family are on strength, including the Ka-28, in service from the mid-1980s and the Ka-31 AEW helicopter, which was delivered from 2003.
On the lighter side, HAL Cheetaks, a licence-built version of the Aerospatiale Alouette III are operated from the decks of smaller ships.
Indonesia has a requirement for a modern naval combat helicopter, but has yet to announce a formal competition.
The Tentara Nasional Indonesia – Angkatan Laut (TNI-AL) currently operates a small fleet of locally-assembled MBB 105s and Bell 212s, known as the NB-105 and NB-212 respectively. It also uses the Indonesia Aerospace-assembled AS332 Super Puma for ASW work and they also have a potent anti-shipping role, armed with the AM.39 Exocet air to surface missile.
The country was negotiating with the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s over the purchase of the Super Lynx, but the deal was never concluded.
In the early 1990s the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force began taking deliveries of SH-60J Seahawks, built under licence by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and fitted with local equipment.
A total of 101 were built (plus two prototypes built by Sikorsky) and a decade later an upgrade to SH-60K (formerly SH-60Kai) began. Today the helicopters are deployed aboard most of the Navy’s aviation-capable surface combatants but a replacement is required in the not too distant future and the Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky-led Team Seahawk sees the country as a candidate for the MH-60R.
Japan also has a fleet of Sikorsky S-80M-1 (MH-53E) Sea Stallion mine hunters which are in the process of being replaced by 11 MCH-101s, a mine hunting version of the AgustaWestland AW101 built under licence in Japan by Kawasaki Heavy Industries.
Malaysia became the first Asian customer for the (then) Westland Super Lynx, when it placed an order for six helicopters in 1999. The Super Lynx 300 replaced the elderly Westland Wasp in service with the Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia (TLDM) and serves aboard the Lekiu-class frigates.
By 2008 studies were underway to procure an ASW helicopter which would ultimately replace the Super Lynx and Eurocopter AS.555N Fennec light helicopters, but no formal competition is launched.
Team Seahawk, at least, views Malaysia as another potential MH-60R customer and its presence at the forthcoming LIMA show on Langkawi is no coincidence.
Another former Wasp operator is New Zealand, which acquired five Kaman SH-2G(NZ) Seasprite helicopters to replace them.
The Seasprites are operated on behalf of the Navy by the Royal New Zealand Air Force, with Navy crews and regularly embark aboard the two Anzac-class frigates HMNZS Te Kaha and Te Mana. Together with the Lockheed Martin P-3K2 Orions, they form the sole offensive capability of the RNZAF and are armed with Raytheon AGM-65 Maverick missiles for ASuW missions and door-mounted machine guns for boarding operations.
The Pakistan Navy has a mix of western and Chinese naval combat helicopters, which operate from the F22P Zulfiquar and Tariq (ex Royal Navy Amazon) class frigates and shore establishments.
Seven Westland Sea King Mk.45s were acquired in the 1970s and the six or so survivors remain in service today, employed on ASW and ASuW duties. The lighter shipboard helicopter has been, until recently, the Aerospatiale Alouette II but a number of Harbin Z-9ECs have recently been purchased from China for use aboard the Zulfiquar vessels.
The Pakistani version of the Z-9 is an ASW-optimised variant, equipped with dipping sonar and pulse Doppler radar.
Although lacking a serious naval combat capability, the Philippine Navy operates the survivors of five MBB Bo-105Cs delivered in the 1970s in a Search and Rescue capacity.
It has been reported in defence media that the country is looking to acquire two new helicopters for use aboard its ex US Coast Guard Hamilton-class Cutter PNS Gregorio del Pilar, but no details have emerged as to which types are under consideration.
The Island state of Singapore has recently completed deliveries of six S-70B Seahawks, which are used aboard the stealthy Formidable class frigates. The helicopters were ordered in 2005 and, after working up with the US Navy in San Diego, were delivered to Sembawang during 2010. They are operated by the Republic of Singapore Air Force on behalf of the Navy.
Despite the dipping sonar-equipped S-70s being brand new, Singapore has been identified as a potential customer for the MH-60R, which also confers a significant Anti-Surface Warfare capability and Team Seahawk and the US Navy are reprtedly displaying a helicopter at next February’s Singapore Airshow.
As mentioned earlier in this story, South Korea has arguably the most pressing need for a naval combat helicopter and, according to US Navy sources, is expected to begin soliciting proposals for what it calls a Maritime Operations Helicopter next year.
The Republic of Korea Navy presently relies upon a number of Lynx Mk.99 and Super Lynx Mk.99A helicopters to fulfil its maritime requirements. It has also requested the purchase of a number of MH-60S maritime support helicopters from the US Government.
Twelve Lynx Mk.99s were delivered from 1990 and the eleven survivors continue in service alongside a similar number of Super Lynx Mk.99As ordered in 1997.
The Republic of China Navy is another operator of the American Seahawk, operating around 20 S-70C Thunderhawks in the ASW role.
Purchased in two variants, the S-70C-M1 delivered from 1990 and S-70C-M2 in 2001 the Thunderhawks have reportedly been joined by two further examples for Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) operations.
Thailand operates an eclectic mix of naval helicopters, the most capable of which are six S-70B-7 Seahawks acquired in the late 1990s and a pair of Super lynx 300s delivered a few years ago. The Seahawks were purchased for operations from Thailand’s Asturias class aircraft carrier HTMS Chakri Narubet. The Lynx are two of four reportedly ordered in 2004 and Thailand is the third Asian customer for the type, behind Malaysia and South Korea. They are often deployed aboard the Navy’s frigates. The Royal Thai Navy also has a mix of Bell 212ASW, 214ST and Sikorsky S-76B helicopters and is currently taking delivery of six MH-60S combat support helicopters.
Confirmation of the Vietnam People’s Navy operating any naval combat helicopters is not available; however the service has two Gepard 3-9-class frigates which are capable of embarking a helicopter. The two ships, Dinh Tien Hoang and Ly Thai To, were built in Russia and delivered in March and August this year. They are the first vessels in the Navy to feature a helicopter capability and it is a reasonable assumption that acquisition of a naval combat helicopter is at least under consideration.
The competition to supply helicopters to fulfil these requirements, and others, will be hard-fought but there is the potential for numerous regional sales over the next decade and the rewards are significant.