The MH-60 Seahawk has proven to be the most versatile helicopter the Navy has in its rotorcraft fleet, performing a wide range of missions in both combat and support roles.
Based on the utilitarian design of the UH-60 Black Hawk, the Seahawk can fly recue missions, provide airlift and aerial resupply or serve as a communications relay. The larger, more specialized MH-60R variant is designed to detect and engage both enemy submarines and surface vessels.
Together the two aircraft can perform missions that, previous to their deployment, would have taken a fleet of aircraft, which has made them all the more attractive to a budget-conscious Navy and allies, said an aerospace industry expert.
The Navy’s order of about 300 Romeo-model anti-submarine warfare Seahawks is a few years from being filled. The platform’s usefulness likely will protect its funding through final deliveries in 2018, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Washington, D.C.-based Teal Group.
The aircraft has gained popularity among U.S. allies worldwide and is perfectly suited to operations in the Asia-Pacific region. However, foreign military sales likely will not support current production levels once the Navy’s needs are filled, Aboulafia said.
“Right now things look really great for the MH-60R,” he said. “The only concern is the programs of record for the naval variant are coming to an end in the next seven to eight years.”
Manufacturers are hoping international demand for a general-purpose maritime rotorcraft can make up the production slack once the Navy’s fleet is delivered, but that market is inconsistent at best, he said.
The Seahawk is an all-around workhorse naval helicopter capable of detection and interdiction of enemy ships and submarines. It can also perform maritime search-and-rescue missions, aerial resupply, medical evacuation, fleet support and act as a communication relay between forces.
With more than 100 delivered already, the MH-60R is on the way to fulfilling the Navy’s plan to replace its aging fleet of rotary aircraft by 2018, Aboulafia wrote in a 2013 report on MH-60 production. The Romeo model, manufactured by Sikorsky Aircraft and equipped with mission systems and sensors by Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training, is specifically outfitted to perform anti-submarine warfare in both littoral water and the open ocean.
The aircraft can also engage surface ships by itself or in concert with the MH-60S, called the “Sierra.”
Sikorsky spokesman Frans Jurgens called the Sierra a “flying truck” that can accomplish nearly any conceivable utility mission at sea.
The two variants share a digital, all-glass cockpit manufactured and installed by Lockheed. The common avionics suite features four large, flat-panel, multi-function, night-vision-compatible color displays. The suite processes and manages communications and sensor data streaming into the aircraft and gives the two models a high degree of interoperability.
“If you want a serious maritime helicopter that is ideal for surveillance above and below the surface, the Romeo is your aircraft,” Jurgens said. “With the multi-mission utility of the Romeo, it can do everything the Sierra can do, but it’s actually a different beast. It’s a sensor platform on steroids. It will paint the surface and give you the subsurface mapping as well. A crew of three [in one helicopter] can do what a team of two helicopters used to do.”
Aboulafia agreed, saying in his 2013 report on the MH-60 program that it is “by far the most capable naval helicopter in production, and, for the next few years anyway, the only truly integrated and experienced [anti-submarine warfare] machine.”
All carrier strike groups carry a mixed fleet of Sierras and Romeos, both of which are deployed on carriers. Smaller ships like cruisers, destroyers, frigates and the littoral combat ship carry the Romeo, which has a shorter wheel base that supports its greater weight and allows it to land on smaller decks.
The Navy is procuring 300 MH-60Rs through 2018. Production deliveries of this larger model began in 2005, and more than a third have been delivered. A single Romeo cost $35.5 million in 2011, according to the Teal report.
The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act fully funded MH-60R procurement at $600 million along with $231 million for advanced procurement.
The H-60 manufacturers are under their eighth multi-year procurement contract with the U.S. military. The current batch includes a total of 653 H-60s valued at $8.5 billion for delivery by the end of 2017. There are 234 Black Hawks and 120 medevac HH-60Ms for the Army, 131 MH-60Rs and 62 MH-60Ss for the Navy and 106 H-60s — Black Hawks and Seahawks — for foreign military sales buyers in the mix. Australia accounts for 24 of the exported H-60s. A ninth multi-year contract comprised only of Black Hawks is being negotiated, Jurgens said.
Lockheed and Sikorsky may get a reprieve if Congress becomes involved and extends the Navy’s procurement program past 2018, which has occurred in the past, Aboulafia said. Sikorsky, especially, enjoys a powerful delegation from Connecticut, where many of its facilities are based, he said. The Navy is also moving toward an all-MH-60 helicopter fleet, which could mean that some of the heavy lift missions currently performed by the MH-53 Sea Dragon are transitioned to the MH-60S.
The Navy plans to buy at least 275 Sierras, up from a requirement of 237 set in 2006. Again, it has proven popular in Congress, with the usual pro-Sikorsky plus-ups.
“The total number may rise, however, if the MH-60S takes over some of the MH-53 role,” Aboulafia said. “Also, Thailand has become the first [MH-60S] export customer, followed by South Korea. There’s no substitute for space when it comes to lifting things, but sensors have gotten smaller, which has given the smaller Sierra greater capacity.”
It’s unlikely the Marines will purchase Seahawks as a utility helicopter because of an ongoing program to upgrade their UH-1Y fleet with a more-powerful, four-bladed Huey. The Marine Corps has also resisted adopting any aircraft used by other services in an effort to protect the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, Aboulafia said.
“The MH-60 definitely threatens the V-22 because it has many of the same capabilities and is less expensive,” he said.
Lockheed and Sikorsky are marketing both maritime H-60 variants to overseas customers, Jurgens said. It was a focus of Sikorsky’s business development activities at the Singapore Air Show in February, he said.
But even a robust export market for the specialized MH-60R means about one aircraft per month. No foreign military sales customer is expected to replace dozens-per-year production levels to fulfill Navy requirements.
Aboulafia described the Seahawk export market as “small and lumpy” where manufacturers relying on foreign military sales “run the risk where in some years there are zero and the next there may be half a dozen.”
“There’s a lot about the Seahawk that is unique to that variant, which is more of a problem for Lockheed than it is for Sikorsky, which builds all the other H-60 variants,” Aboulafia said. “Can [Lockheed] keep their production lines for the mission systems humming once the Navy order ends? What does it do to your cost of construction and systems integration?”
A Lockheed spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Teal Group last year predicted the Seahawk would find at least 22 international buyers over 10 years on top of existing H-60 orders from Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Singapore, Thailand and Turkey. It is likely Thailand and South Korea will together purchase another 11 MH-60Ss during that period, the report said.
So far, Denmark and Australia are the only two confirmed buyers of the Romeo. Jurgens called those two deals “huge purchases.”
“Other countries are interested in these aircraft and we are marketing them around the world,” he said. Given the Navy’s ongoing program and a couple recent international contract awards, Sikorsky will have a lot of MH-60Rs in the pipeline for the time being, Jurgens said.
Australia received in January the first two of 24 Romeos it has agreed to purchase. The deal is valued at just under $3.2 billion. At least 11 will be delivered to the Royal Australian Navy in 2014, Jurgens said. Denmark has paid $686 million for nine MH-60Rs, which will begin production in 2014. Still, neither of those programs is scheduled to take Romeo production beyond 2018. Deliveries to Australia are slated to conclude even earlier in 2016.
The MH-60R is being pitched as interoperable with the Navy’s Aegis automatic threat detection system. Countries that purchase Romeos also benefit from Navy logistical support, training, product improvements and technical services. Those enticements did not stop South Korea from buying a rival helicopter to fulfill its requirement for a maritime operations helicopter.
After initially requesting the $1 billion sale of eight MH-60Rs, engines and maintenance equipment, South Korea instead awarded a contract to AgustaWestland, marking the first export of its AW159.
To further complicate matters Eurocopter — now Airbus — is offering the NFH-90, a multipurpose maritime helicopter with an integrated anti-submarine warfare capability, which further undercuts Sikorsky’s monopoly on the anti-submarine warfare market, Aboulafia said.
At least a dozen nations have purchased the multipurpose AW159 through 2013, but collapsing European defense budgets have undermined those marketing efforts, he said.
The Sierra model has also gained international appeal, but few actual sales. Thailand’s Royal Navy in 2007 became the first foreign military sales customer when it bought two Sierras. They were delivered in August 2011.
Aside from the scuttled Korea purchase, Qatar has also requested the sale of 22 MH-60s. The order for 10 Romeos and 12 Sierras is valued at $2.5 billion but has not been finalized.Photo Credit: Navy