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Evolution for the RAN (Part 2)

HeliOps Frontline looks how the MH60R system will be integrated into the Royal Australian Navy’s operations

Evolution for the RAN (Part 2) slider 1 Evolution for the RAN (Part 2) slider 2 Evolution for the RAN (Part 2) slider 3

In Part 1, the MH-60R Seahawk capability was explored and how it became an, ‘off the shelf’ purchase for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). In this part, Mark Ogden explores the MH-60R and in particular, the RAN’s 725 Squadron.

Part 2 of this story looked at the evolution and capability of the MH-60R as well as how Australia came to choose this capability. Here, HeliOps Frontline looks how the system will be integrated into the Royal Australian Navy’s operations

725 Squadron

725 Squadron was established to provide the embryo around which the RAN’s Fleet Air Arm will build its next Seahawk capability. An Aviation Warfare Officer (AvWO), Commander David ‘Frosty’ Frost is 725’s Commanding Officer. His postings include RAF Cranwell in the UK, to complete a Masters in Aerosystems and being the Lead Seahawk Flight Test Specialist at the RAN Flight Trials Unit of which he was Officer-in-Charge. In February 2013 he assumed command of NUSQN 725 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Commitment

Commander Frost explained that the success of the Romeo program has been due to not only the squadron personnel, but also the absolute commitment of behind-the-scenes support organisations such as the Capability Development Group, Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) and Navy Strategic Command. “While off-the-shelf comes with a lot of advantages, like any complex procurement there are always challenges because the system is being adapted to a different customer to work in a different environment using different rules and regulations – lots of work is required to ensure the square peg fits in the square hole.”

After the cancellation of the Seasprite program, Australia’s defence policy makers identified a gap in the Navy’s capability. Additionally, as explained by the squadron’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Todd Glynn, doubt had also arisen about the supportability of the aging S-70B-2 computers that form the heart of its weapon and operating system.. “The support organisations were doing a great job keeping the computers going but 25 years down the line, just how much more they could be pushed was a serious unknown,” he said. “Although the S-70B-2 is still working well, the risk is there and bringing on a new capability takes time. The Navy needed an in-service, highly capable solution with minimal development risk.”

While the S-70B-2 was a significant capability that was at the cutting edge, there was a downside; the digital systems were going to be subject to early natural obsolescence and with just 16 airframes, the fleet was small. Although the airframe was going to remain capable, the Navy was facing a potentially expensive avionics and weapon systems upgrade or replacement program.

Romeo in many ways will likely reduce the chance of natural obsolescence due to the large number of the same aircraft in the US fleet and the intention by the Australians to closely integrate with any US Navy upgrade program. The Australians intend being active partners in the proposed Seahawk Capability Assurance Program (SCAP). “We don’t want to be a passive customer,” explained Commander Frost, “The bridges built by DMO and by our time in the US have allowed us to bring different ideas to the table and the USN has been listening.”

One example is the requirement by the Australians to have an integrated ILS/VOR/DME installed. The USN is considering the benefits of that requirement for implementation in its aircraft along with other proposed Australian improvements including extra message sets in Link 16, changes to the recovery assist program, installation of cockpit voice, acoustic and crash data recorders. As Commander Frost pointed out, it goes beyond equipment. “It includes the way we train and fight, and how we look for continuous improvement.” “My position is as the Australian Model Manager for Romeo and in the 18 months we’ve been participating, we have already influenced publication content. That technical and operational partnership is vital to ensure we all get the best out of this capability.”

In keeping with the desire for close integration, the Australians have adopted the USN NATOPs (Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization) as the standard operating document. “Our NATOPs come with a Kangaroo on the front and although there are minor changes to align with local rules and procedures the content is fundamentally the same as the USN document.” Changes to the Australian NATOPs are made following acceptance by the US of a very strong business case for change.

As well as learning from the USN, the Australians gave their US hosts a glimpse of their approach to Crew Resource Management (CRM) and a different crew model. Through experiences in the Sea King and the S-70B-2, the RAN developed a blend of military and civilian, British and Australian approaches to CRM using standard cockpit procedures and phraseology. The concepts are taught to the most junior aircrew and are consistently applied throughout the Fleet Air Arm, regardless of type.

The Australian crew has three specialists, the pilot, a specialist AvWO (the Tactical Coordinator or TACCO) and a SENSO (sensor operator). The AvWO is a specialist tactician that occupies the left seat and although there primarily to ‘fight the war’, the position also backs up the pilot. The SENSO is highly trained in the use of sensors and conducting utility operations. The crew model and specialisation, as well as the CRM aspects, allowed a relatively quick transition to the Romeo, even for the junior aircrew.

The RAN crew model has developed over many years, the focus on CRM and how crews interact to achieve the mission goal. This was also another benefit of being in the US; it allowed the crew model to be further reviewed against the USN model and as a result, explained Commander Frost, a lot of USN personnel on the East Coast were very interested in some of the tactical advantages it delivered. “This type of cross-fertilisation and mutual understanding is immeasurable when considering the close operational relationship the RAN has with the USN.” “The USN expressed a lot of surprise at the tactical competence of our AvWOs, especially the junior crews and there was a lot of discussion about our crew model.” “The USN had not previously trained AvWOs in their helicopter community so the training needed to be modified to reflect what an Australian AvWO is and does. The USN did not fully appreciate the benefits of our approach until they saw how the junior crews fared in the Helicopter Aircrew Readiness Program, especially in the simulator. The assessors expressed amazement at how the three crew communicated within the aircraft and fought the battle, how they shared the responsibilities and workload.” The general consensus was that the RAN crew model was a very effective way to tactically employ the Romeo.

New facilities at the Naval Air Station, Nowra, NSW were needed but it was going to take time to build the required infrastructure for such as advanced system. To reduce time and ensure the site met the needs of the program, a Greenfield site on the western side of the base was chosen. Although standing the squadron up in the USA was not originally planned, the program’s short timescale coupled with the time needed to build the necessary infrastructure made it vital that initial introduction and training was done in the USA. There was also a realisation that there were significant benefits in embedding maintainers and aircrew into a USN Squadron, considering the USN had been operating the Romeo for six years. “Much of the decision-making on the program was aimed at reducing risk and minimising time to bring the capability to fruition,” Commander Frost explained.

The program was ambitious but it is being achieved. In February 2013, about 50 people were sent over, growing eventually to 112 personnel plus their families; 250 people all up. The first year was learning while working beside USN personnel. During the second year, the Australians began receiving their own aircraft. Commander Frost said that if they did not understand something, personnel would walk across to their US counterparts and ask, “What do we do here?”

“It was during this time that we realised that we needed to make the fundamental shift to calendar-based maintenance, understand how to use electronic publications, and how to influence changes in the publications.”

The basing in the USA also helped support agencies such as NASPO (Naval Aviation Systems Program Office) build up their capabilities and relationships with MHSCO (Maritime Helicopter Support Company), Sikorsky Helitech and other support elements.

Maintenance

As Lieutenant Jakob Kapelj, one of the senior engineers on the squadron said that they did lot of on-the-job training with the USN instructors. “They really know what they’re doing and being embedded in the US Squadron for three months before Australian aircraft were delivered allowed me to see planning and servicing regimes at work, and how they used the aircraft.”

He said there was a big difference between the two environments. “The US has clearly been in a war-fighting environment for a long time and is very operationally focused. The servicing regime is very different to our S-70B-2 – using calendar-based maintenance they can sustain a very high rate of effort with a small number of aircraft.” Under calendar-based maintenance, once a servicing is cleared, the aircraft can fly incredible hours every day.” “The challenge is to find the sweet spot that is the number of aircraft versus the rate of effort. The US would range aircraft in the morning and fly them through to the next morning, just fly and not shutdown.”

This can put a lot of flying hours on individual aircraft, which then goes onto to affect phase servicing planning (based on flight hours). “Under the traditional hours-based maintenance we’d chip away at the hours to arrange an orderly progression into phase maintenance but with this, the aircraft fly huge chunks of hours.” According to Lieutenant Kapelj, the time the Romeo spends in phase maintenance is about half that of the S-70B-2.

Airframes specialist ABATA Carlos Chu found the USN squadrons very accommodating in helping with tools and advice. “They have a wealth of knowledge.”

LSATV Scott Tunnard, a specialist in avionics, backed that observation. An ex-Merlin technician from the Royal Navy, he said that the US Chief Petty Officers who are sort of the ‘oracles’ shared their knowledge at every opportunity.

From an engineering point of view, the plan is that the Romeo maintenance regime will remain the same as the USN. “We’ve gone for a military off the shelf solution,” explained Lieutenant Kapelj, “so we are staying in lock-step with the USN. The challenge within the engineering fraternity in following this approach is that our regulatory environment is different, so there will always be rub points where the difference in regulatory requirements conflict.” His observation of the aircraft? “It is an incredibly capable aircraft and everyone loves it. The things it can do are just fantastic. Most of the kinks have been ironed out. The electronic publications are absolutely brilliant. Everything is hyperlinked, quick and easy and has a search function so if you search for the box you’re working on, it will literally bring everything to do with that item up including how you get spares.”

AB Chu said that the airframe is basically the same as the S-70B-2 although it now has a 4th Hydraulic pump for the Airborne Low Frequency Dipping Sonar (ALFS), extra high capacity cooling fans and many more housings hanging off it, but there were no big surprises or steep learning curves for the airframe/engine technicians.

Training

The Squadron has melded experience from the S-70B-2 fraternity with personnel from the MRH-90, the Squirrel (AS350) and even maintainers newly graduated from the training school. It works well with questioning of practices and ideas.

725 Squadron is shifting its focus to Australia-based training but while 816 transitions, 725 in addition to its core training role, remains model manager, flight support and introduction unit for its first Flight while awaiting formulation of 816 Romeo. 816 will operate the two types of Seahawk until the S-70B-2 is completely phased out. The current plan has ships’ flight support role being passed to 816 Squadron at the end of 2015. Other people within the Navy’s headquarters and tactical development areas are performing the operational testing, evaluation, development and implementation work. Already with four courses running, training is now the primary focus. “725 is to be the school house (as the USN calls it) and that’s what we are working towards,” commented Commander Frost. “We have to get the training continuum right – from the prerequisite qualifications needed for someone to start a course to ensuring the person leaves with the experience and knowledge to join an operational flight.” He went to say that the Squadron needs to coordinate with the various training and personnel agencies to ensure that the ‘6-pack’ (two of each flavour – pilot, AvWO and SENSO) aircrew have the appropriate blend of competencies and experience.

The training model now being adopted harks back to a time before the late 70’s when the RAN had second- and front-line squadrons. The second line squadrons trained the crews which allowed the front line squadrons room to develop techniques and tactics, and address operational needs, and provide a sea/shore roster. That model disappeared on the demise of the carrier fixed wing capability and ever since, each squadron had to train and be operational. This simply stretched the people and the equipment to a point where training and operations suffered.

A ship’s ‘Flight’ is a fully self-contained operating unit of one or two aircraft plus its air and maintenance crew, and support equipment and spares. When the S-70B-2 was introduced, pressure resulting from early operational employment created long-term adverse impacts on following operations and training. People want the Romeo at sea, but the Navy in general understands that 725 needs to get its training base established and running, “then the 816 Romeo aircraft and its crews will be ready for operations,” advised the Commanding Officer. The Navy and its Fleet Air Arm command are well aware of the need for 725 to be functional in its role to provide an orderly transition to 816 embarked operations. The ultimate target is to have 8 flights at sea.

Synthetic training now plays a vital role in producing crew within a reasonable timescale. Past delays in qualifying aircrew were often caused by the unavailability of assets such as ships. Growing single pilot aircraft captains means that pilots take nine to ten months to train but now most of the training will be done using simulation and computer based packages. Two full mission Level D simulators will allow overlapping of courses and fundamentally change the way the crew will maintain currencies.

AUTEC

Part of the training and qualification of the Australian aircraft and crews was the testing of the systems and weapons. For this, the Australians utilised the USN test range in the Bahamas, known as AUTEC. The Atlantic Underwater Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) was an eye-opening experience for the RAN personnel. In under ten months of receiving the aircraft the crews were at AUTEC, dispensing Chaff and Flares, firing Hellfire missiles, dropping torpedoes, doing dipping operations, using the machine guns in multi-aircraft operations. “It was incredible,” commented Lieutenant Kapelj, “for example when we went to do our first Hellfire load, having the USN explosives and ordinance guy, who has been doing this forever looking over your shoulder really gave you confidence.” He explained that multiple Squadrons turn up at AUTEC. “All the other squadrons and their Hellfires are lined up and ready to go with the entire process running very efficiently. This is what we also strived for and indeed achieved at both AUTEC and NAS JAX”.

“At the end of Jacksonville, we worked up to the point everyone was very comfortable working with weapons. Our job is to reestablish that familiarity in the RAN.”

Challenges

A difference in comparison with other FMS sales was that 725 operated the Australian Romeo Seahawks, an Australian military aircraft under the Australian military airworthiness system within the USN for nearly a year. Before receiving their aircraft, the team had to achieve all the airworthiness requirements before gaining their Special Flight Permit (SFP). That cleared them to operate in the USA. The SFP is the precursor to the Australian Military Type Certificate and Service Release. “There were so many elements to that SFP, such as the management of logistics and maintenance support down to Work Health and Safety – we had to marry our obligations and requirements under a US system while meeting the requirements of the Australian system.”

Senior officers of 725 couldn’t praise the DMO enough for making the ‘system’ support the aircraft introduction. Commander Frost observed, “this project has certainly demonstrated the gold standard for capability procurement and introduction.”

He said that the DMO representatives established some very ambitious plans by making sure they leveraged off the work the US Navy had already done. “We were struggling to keep up with their delivery!”

Considering that the Romeo will probably be one of the major weapon and sensor platforms on the ships, proper integration is vital. According to Lieutenant Kapelj, the integration modeling is pretty revolutionary for any aircraft introduction. “So we are set up as best as we could possibly be for all the ships to be ready and there’s a lot of ‘stuff’ that needs to go on the ship.” The Primary ships are the ANZAC Class frigates and the HOBART Class Air Warfare Destroyer each with single aircraft flights.

Sense of Achievement

Presently, there is no other operational maritime helicopter that has the capability of the Romeo packed into such a compact airframe. The RN Merlin Mk2 comes close but it’s a big aircraft that is also integrated by Lockheed Martin. It will also be interesting to see where the Canadians take the H-92.

Commander Frost observed that managing the concurrent activities including commissioning new facilities, bringing the new aircraft online and training personnel has been an immense challenge for everyone involved, . “To see all our plans comes to fruition and this incredible capability now operating on home soil is a credit to the men and women of 725, the Navy and all supporting agencies,” he observed.

“I’m immensely proud of what we have managed to achieve in such a short time and the amazing support of many to get us here. It’s just incredible.”

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