The recapitalisation of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) continues, with the delivery in October of the last Airbus Helicopters EC135 T2+ helicopter for the joint Army/Navy Helicopter Aircrew Training System (HATS) and the continuing operational test and evaluation in support of future maritime unmanned aerial systems.
It was also announced in October that all future RAN surface combatants will be modified with the US Navy’s HawkLink data link system. HawkLink is fitted to the Fleet Air Arm’s MH-60R Seahawks, but until now there had been no funding to modify the surface fleet.
However, on the debit side of the ledger two veteran helicopter types, the Eurocopter AS350BA Squirrel and Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk, will finally retire from service in December after many years of service.
On October 11 Boeing Defence Australia announced that the 15th and final EC135 T2+ had been delivered, after arriving in Australia in late August.
Boeing is the prime contractor for the HATS being delivered under Joint Project 9000 Phase 7. HATS will provide ab initio training to RAN and Australian Army students via the Joint Helicopter School within the RAN’s 723 Squadron based at HMAS Albatross at Nowra, New South Wales.
Boeing’s HATS programme director, Darryn Fletcher, said: “The arrival of the final EC135 by our partner Airbus marks an important achievement as we prepare to accept the first navy and army trainees in mid-January 2018. We are now working with our partners to complete qualification of the simulators, finalise the training courses and complete the delivery of synthetic devices.”
The EC135 is replacing Navy Squirrels and Army Bell 206B-1 Kiowas in the training role and the fleet has already exceeded 1,200 flying hours since being introduced to the programme. The first conversion course for Boeing and Australian Defence Force qualified flying instructors has also recently been completed.
First-of-class flight trials aboard the RAN’s multi-role aviation training vessel MV Sycamore also began in October, paving the way for the first student course in January 2018.
Fletcher said: “The training of the pilot and aircrew instructors is well underway, and Boeing is pleased with how live and synthetic training and materials has progressed.”
HawkLink for the fleet
Speaking at the second Naval Aviation Symposium held concurrently with the Pacific 2017 maritime exhibition in October, Commodore Rob Elliott, Director General Surface Combatants and Aviation Capability Division at Navy’s Strategic Command, announced that the HawkLink system will be mandated on all future RAN surface combatants. It will also be fitted to the Navy’s new Hobart class air warfare destroyers as they enter their maintenance periods in the future.
He said: “The decision is very important to us in the aviation world. It is a capability we have of course on our Romeo [MH-60R] combat helicopters, but it is not integrated into our surface combatant fleet. We will do that, and we have been given the funds to do that. It’s just a matter of time for us to be able to get that capability effect. The capability will bring a challenge for [Commander Fleet Air Arm] Commodore Chris Smallhorn, because his team will then have to manage the data we’re going to have to put on the network; and work with the Australian Defence Force, the Air Force and Army to jointly utilise that data.”
Commodore Elliott also said that a Capability Upgrade Programme for the MH-60R has recently been approved. The work will ensure that the RAN’s 24 Romeos will be upgraded in step with the US Navy’s fleet under Project Sea 5510 Phase 1 and will include integration of the BAE Systems Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System.
Future UAS capability
Also speaking at the symposium, Commodore Smallhorn said the growth of naval aviation is evidenced by the fact that by 2035 29 ships will be equipped with a helicopter flight deck, compared with only 16 at the present time.
One of the major growth areas will be in maritime tactical unmanned systems (MTUAS) and Commodore Smallhorn said the work currently being undertaken by the Navy Unmanned Aerial Systems Unit (NUASU), which is currently operating the Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle, will be instrumental in the selection of one or more UAS platforms in the future.
The fixed-wing ScanEagle is currently undergoing operational evaluation in the Arabian Gulf aboard the guided missile frigate HMAS Newcastle, together with a MH-60R in early manned/unmanned teaming trials.
NUASU has also operated a pair of leased Schiebel S-100 Camcopters from shore bases, but both have been lost in accidents and replacements will arrive later in the year.
The future MTUAS capability will be acquired in two tranches of Project Sea 129 Phase 5. Stage one will see a platform acquired for the 12 offshore patrol vessels that will be delivered from early next decade, and stage two will acquire a (possibly larger) platform for the RAN’s major surface combatants.
The RAN’s remaining AS350BA Squirrel and S-70B-2 classic Seahawk fleets will finally be retired on December 1, after 34 and 27 years of operational service respectively.
At the peak of service, 13 Squirrels wore navy colours and some had actually deployed to the Middle East aboard navy frigates during the first Gulf War. The helicopters were given a coat of grey paint and had a machine gun mounted in the cabin doorway, earning the nickname ‘Battle Budgies’.
By early October only six remained in service, but all will finish in December, when they will be replaced by the aforementioned EC135s. Of the retired helicopters, one (N22- 017, a Gulf War veteran) has been presented to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Likewise, December will see the end of the classic SH-60B Seahawk dubbed Bravos, which has been replaced by the much more capable MH-60R variant.
Sixteen Bravos were delivered to the RAN, but only three remained on the national register by early October. Commodore Smallhorn noted that, assuming there are no accidents in the last two months of operations, the Seahawk will be the only Australian Defence Force platform to have never suffered a loss in service.
One of the retired helicopters (N24- 016) has already been delivered to the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Nowra and, like the AS350BA, another will be presented to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in December.