The MH-60R and MH-60S now are well into their second decade of operation, and the U.S. Navy has begun the process of finding their replacements. Although interested in the Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, the Navy must be mindful of its own unique requirements and avoid acquiring a new helicopter just because it is readily available.1
Twenty years ago, the Navy helicopter fleet consisted of H-46s, H-3s, MH-53s, SH-60Bs, SH-60Fs, HH-60Hs and even UH-1s. The Navy’s helicopter master plan (circa 2004) shrank the helicopter community from those seven airframes to just three currently: MH-60Rs, MH-60Ss (referred to as the Romeo and Sierra) and two squadrons of MH-53Es that are waiting to be retired when the Sierra takes over the airborne mine-countermeasure (AMCM) mission. There is a desire for a common airframe to replace the Romeo and Sierra aircraft, but this desire displays a misunderstanding of how our current aircraft are used in daily operations.2 The Romeo and Sierra’s primary missions are almost completely different (though they do share some common secondary missions). Squeezing the requirements for both into the same airframe would be shortsighted. The Navy’s future rotary-wing fleet must be shaped by mission requirements not by a desire for commonality.
The MH-60Ss, flown by the helicopter sea combat (HSC) community, fulfill a wide variety of missions including logistical support, vertical replenishment (VR), search and rescue (SAR), medical evacuation, combat search and rescue (CSAR), antisurface warfare, special operations support, and, in the future, airborne mine countermeasures (AMCM). The community formed when the logistic support of the old helicopter combat support (HC) community merged with the search-and-rescue and special operations support side of the old helicopter antisubmarine (HS) community. Similar to the Army Blackhawk in cabin arrangement, the Sierra was adapted to the naval environment. It can be armed with a combination of crew-served machine guns, Hellfire missiles, rockets (both guided and unguided), or a fixed 20mm gun. Squadrons are either carrier-based or operate with expeditionary detachments. Deploying on carriers as an entire squadron, Sierra detachments also embark on large-deck amphibious ships, supply vessels, hospital ships, and littoral combat ships.
The MH-60Rs, flown by the helicopter maritime strike (HSM) community, primarily fulfill an antisurface (ASUW) and antisubmarine (ASW) role, but they also can perform—in a limited capacity—logistics missions, medevac, and VR. The airframe and sensor package are similar to those of its predecessor, the SH-60B, with the addition of a dipping sonar like the SH-60F. Though based on the Blackhawk airframe, the cabin is filled with mission equipment and, in some configurations, can hold only two personnel. Weapons include a crew-served machine gun, Hellfire missiles, guided rockets, and lightweight torpedoes. Romeos embark on carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and littoral combat ships and represent a carrier strike group’s (CSG’s) only organic airborne ASW and primary surface search coordination (SSC) asset. In addition, Romeos are capable of over-the-horizon targeting, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and spotting for naval surface fire support.
The MH-53E of the helicopter mine countermeasures (HM) community now falls under the HSC wing but eventually will be phased out. It fulfills the AMCM mission and has a heavy lift capability. The Sierras are slated to take over the AMCM mission when the MH-53s are retired.
A new addition to vertical lift naval aviation will be the CMV-22 Osprey, replacing the venerable C-2 COD beginning in 2020. The unique “CMV” designation leaves the Osprey open to a larger role than just logistic support, to include potential special operations support.3
Constraints for Future Aircraft
The largest constraint for the Romeo replacement is the requirement to fit in the hangars on board the DDG-51, DDG-1000, CG-47, LCS, and any future surface combatant class. As the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class ships are just beginning production, they will be in service long after the Romeo is retired. The replacement for the Sierra is not as constrained by size as it primarily deploys on carriers and large deck amphibious ships. Therefore, the design for the Sierra replacement could focus more on mission capability than size.
Although a common airframe could reduce overall cost, the current Romeo and Sierra common airframe experiment illustrates that performance and capability can suffer. Rather than focusing on a common aircraft, the Navy could use existing technologies and aircraft to reduce cost and increase mission effectiveness.
Every day around the globe, Romeos survey the waters around every deployed carrier strike group and surface action group. Heir to the SH-60B and SH-60F missions but without upgraded engines, transmission, or rotors, the Romeo’s range remains the same as that of 60Bs and Fs of the late 1980s. Although it has more capable sensors than the aircraft it replaced, the Romeo is limited in range, speed, and overall capability because the Navy helicopter master plan sought to cut costs through commonality. The Romeo does have improved radar, dipping sonar, and enhanced electronic support measures (ESM) providing extended sensor range over earlier-generation Seahawks. Pairing the same airframe with newer, heavier sensors, however, increased the Romeo’s fuel burn and reduced its speed. With the retirement of the S-3 Viking in 2009, an aircraft with a 1,750-nm patrol range and 10-hour flight duration,4 the Navy is in need of an aircraft that can move outside the vital area to locate, target, and engage enemy forces before they locate a high-value unit.
Keeping a focus on ASW and ASUW, the Romeo replacement needs increased range, speed, payload, and advanced sensors in a package that can fit into a small deck hangar. At a minimum, the requirement to cruise above 250 knots with more than four hours of endurance would enable the Romeo to find, fix, and target hostile ships at a range of up to 500 miles—beyond enemy antiship cruise missile range. Aerial refueling could extend that range further. Improvements to the acoustic processing suite would increase effectiveness against air-independent propulsion (AIP) diesel submarines. Enhanced armor, exhaust suppression, and other survivability improvements also would increase mission performance.
With such requirements, the Romeo’s replacement likely cannot be a traditional helicopter. As the Army has seen with the FVL competition, a coaxial helicopter with a pusher propeller or a tilt-rotor aircraft probably could meet the requirements. Though it would not offer a range comparable with the S-3, its ability to operate from surface combatants and carriers could result in greater and more persistent coverage. Unfortunately, the FVL winner most likely will not be designed for a shipboard environment.
Medical evacuation, passenger transport, and search-and-rescue are secondary capabilities that should not be made excessive for the Romeo.
The mission sets for the HSC community are more diverse than for HSM, so its future aircraft requirements are more varied. Rather than one aircraft to do everything, selecting multiple platforms based on mission requirements could increase combat effectiveness. Because much of the Sierra’s mission involves moving assets—such as cargo or passengers—from one place to another, it is possible the FVL program could produce a suitable airframe. Breaking down each mission could reveal other potential solutions.
Mine Countermeasures: The Sierra is not capable of towing the 53E’s sled, and though the airborne laser mine detection system (ALMDS) shows promise, the lack of a sled is problematic. Of greater concern is the addition of another warfare area to the overloaded HSC community. Expecting Sierra operators to be experts in everything will make them masters of nothing. The replacement for the 53E needs only to be effective in the mine countermeasure mission, with logistics as a secondary mission. It is possible that the FVL winner could fulfill this requirement, though towing a sled may be an issue. Another solution is in developmental testing with the Marine Corps—the MH-53K. While there is some pushback to this idea, the Marines have paid for most of the testing and the supply chain already exists. More powerful and advanced than the 53E, the 53K has room to grow in this warfare area. The cabin will require reinforcement to tow the sled, but that cost will be far less than constructing a new aircraft. The added bonus of keeping the HM community separate from the overly burdened HSC community is dedicated, specialized expertise in one of the most lethal areas of naval warfare.
CSAR/Special Operations Forces Support: The FVL winner could fulfill this mission. Range, speed, and troop capacity are already Army requirements. If the Navy rejects the FVL winner, a solution may be present in the Navy’s CMV-22 Osprey—the COD replacement. In 2011 during the Libya conflict, the Marines successfully recovered a downed Air Force pilot using an MV-22.5 The increased range of the Navy V-22 could make it a viable platform for this mission with some special operations capability incorporated. Populating the new COD community with HSC pilots qualified in personnel recovery/SOF would provide a foundation on which to build. This solution would save money and increase SOF capability from the carrier.
Logistics/VR/SAR/medevac: For this mission set, it is possible the FVL program will yield a viable platform for Navy use. If not, there are other aircraft already in use that fulfill combat support/logistic requirements. From the Sikorsky S-92 to the Augusta Westland AW101, several medium-lift helicopters are in use around the globe that could accomplish this mission and keep development costs down. With a more capable airframe, the HSC community could return to its HC roots and become logistics/SAR experts again.
Antisurface Warfare: With the increased capabilities of the Romeo replacement aircraft, the ASUW requirement is redundant for the HSC community and can be removed.
With the various missions levied against the Navy’s rotary wing fleet, it makes more sense to have multiple platforms and mission specialization. Attempting to maintain currency and proficiency in the current HSC mission set already is challenging. If one platform is chosen to cover all HSC missions, the Navy risks repeating the mistakes made with the Sierra. Multiple platforms, or at least multiple communities, for the different mission sets could increase mission effectiveness.
The MQ-8B Firescout, the larger MQ-8C, and future unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) present a growing capability. Having a persistent SSC/ISR asset deployable from a surface combatant should augment, rather than replace, manned aviation. While publicly the Navy sang the praises of the smaller MQ-8B, the program has been scaled back. The MQ-8C may prove more capable, with longer range, endurance, and speed and a proven airframe. Fortunately, with recent industry advances such as the Bell V-247, there may be several aircraft that could fill the SSC/ISR requirement more effectively.6 The ability to define UAV mission requirements and pair these platforms with manned aircraft will be critical.
The next evolution in Navy rotary aircraft must focus on well-defined missions. Choosing just one platform to replace the current fleet of Romeo, Sierra and 53E aircraft likely would result in a loss of capability. Instead, fielding several platforms—each focused on distinct missions—could enhance our warfighting capability. Cost savings can be achieved through existing technologies and aircraft. Developing a new platform to replace the MH-60R must weigh the strengths and weaknesses of a tilt-rotor aircraft versus a coaxial helicopter with a pusher propeller. Similarly, future execution of the many missions currently held by the HSC community should be centered on platforms that can increase capability the most for the appropriate price. Should the FVL deliver an aircraft that can meet the various HSC missions, the Navy would be wise to explore it. Ultimately, returning to several dedicated rotary wing communities with their own aircraft will enable greater specialization and expertise instead of today’s practice of overloading each community with requirements and blunting their effectiveness.
1. Dave Majumdar, “U.S. Army Selects Bell and Sikorsky/Boeing to Build Prototypes for Next Generation Helicopter Program,” USNI News, 3 October 2014, https://news.usni.org/2014/10/03/u-s-army-selects-bell-sikorskyboeing-build-prototypes-next-generation-helicopter-program.
2. Sam LaGrone, “Navy Pondering Helicopter Future After MH-60 Seahawk,” USNI News, 24 February 2016, https://news.usni.org/2016/02/24/navy-pondering-helicopter-future-after-mh-60-seahawk.
3. Megan Eckstein, “Navy’s Osprey Will Be Called CMV-22B; Procurement to Begin In FY 2018,” USNI News, 5 February 2016, news.usni.org/2016/02/05/navys-osprey-will-be-called-cmv-22b-procurement-to-begin-in-fy-2018.
4. Jerry Hendrix, “Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation,”CNAS.org, 19 October 2015, www.cnas.org/publications/reports/retreat-from-range-the-rise-and-fall-of-carrier-aviation.
5. Larry Shaughnessy, “Downed F-15 Crew on Libya Rescue: ’The Best Feeling,’” CNN.com, 28 April 2011, cnn.com/2011/US/04/27/f15.crew.libya.rescue/.
6. Bell Helicopter Press Release, “Bell Helicopter introduces Bell V-247 “Vigilant” Tiltrotor Unmanned Aerial System in Ship-Borne Configuration,” 30 October 2016, www.bellhelicopter.com/news/press-release/2016/9/v247-vigilant.