As skipper of the guided missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG-107), U.S. Navy Cmdr. Alysa Ambrose relies heavily on her shipâs Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawks.
An MH-60S Sea Hawk receives cargo during a vertical replenishment aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.
The Gravely leads a detachment of four destroyers that since December has been escorting the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) as the aircraft carrierâs jets strike targets of the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria. Those planes typically launch as the Truman sails in the Arabian (aka Persian) Gulf, a body of water teeming with threats â especially at its narrow Strait of Hormuz entryway. Ambrose said the Gravelyâs helicopters play pivotal roles in countering those threats.
âWe have two MH-60 âRomeoâ helicopters embarked with six pilots and two dozen aircraft maintainers,â said Ambrose in a telephone interview from her ship, using a common nickname for the MH-60R. Those two Romeos, equipped with sophisticated sensors that beam radar, infrared and video imagery back to the Gravely and the Truman Strike Group in real time, can carry machine guns and air-to-surface missiles or torpedoes. Ambrose said they âfly six days a week on average, I would say, nine to 10 hours a day. I consider them to be a force multiplier.â
Helicopters are a lot smaller and cheaper than ships, but todayâs Navy barely has twice as many of the former as it has of the latter â 520 rotary-wing aircraft and 201 surface ships, 176 of which can accept a helicopter landing on their decks. But if their number is limited, those helicopters punch above their weight. They not only serve the Navyâs ships as advance scouts, but also protect them from threats in the air, on the sea or under water. They transfer people and supplies between ships and shore. They fly combat search-and-rescue and medical evacuation missions. They carry special operations forces from other services on counterterrorism raids and other missions.
The Navy does all those missions primarily with two variants of Sikorskyâs MH-60, though the service also flies a third H-60 variant as well as Sikorskyâs MH-53E. Excluding the Marine Corpsâ 435 helicopters and 222 MV-22 tiltrotors, which often operate from ships, the Navyâs 520 helicopters include 200 MH-60Rs, 275 MH-60S âSierraâ Seahawks, 15 older HH-60Hs and 30 MH-53E Sea Dragons.
The Romeo is configured for anti-submarine and surface warfare.
The MH-60S flies vertical replenishment, combat search-and-rescue and, when armed, surface warfare missions.
The big, powerful MH-53Es, some of which deployed with the Truman Strike Group, are primarily configured to find and neutralize mines, but have played major roles in humanitarian relief operations in recent years.
The 15 HH-60Hs belong to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 85 (HSC 85), a Naval Reserve unit based at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego used for training and special operations.
âTheyâre home now, but we should be sending them out within a year or two to go support SOF [special operations forces] forward for whatever the commander of SOF needs,â said Cmdr. Wayne Andrews, MH-60S requirements officer for the Navy. âTypically theyâll go out and theyâll actually work for an Air Force colonel with a detachment of four helicopters and do whatever SOF forces need.â
HH-60H aircrews, he added, âprimarily train with naval special warfare (SEALs), and thatâs usually who we support, just because of the Navy-to-Navy synergy we have, but we definitely support any SOF needs.â
Under a multi-year contract, the Navy is buying an additional 80 MH-60 Romeos by the end of 2017. The service is also buying 44 CMV-22B Ospreys to take over its carrier onboard delivery (COD) mission â delivering mail, people and supplies â from the serviceâs aged Northrop Grumman C-2A Greyhound turboprop fixed-wing planes.
A Helicopter Master Plan the Navy adopted in 2002 set in motion a decision to âneck downâ from the seven types of helicopters the service flew back then to only two primary types, the MH-60 Romeo and MH-60 Sierra, said Patrick Jeck, helicopter requirements officer for the Dept. of the Navy. That allowed the service to also reduce the number of rotorcraft wings from seven to four, leaving two based in San Diego, one in Mayport, Florida, and one in Norfolk, Virginia. Navy experts calculated they would save billions of dollars by cutting the number of training and supply pipelines down to two, saving more money over the life cycle of the MH-60s than it would cost to buy them.
The MH-53Es werenât originally a part of the Helicopter Master Plan, but a decade or so ago, the Navy decided to retire those aircraft and equip the MH-60 Sierra to take over the anti-mine countermeasures mission. It proved so difficult to develop anti-mine technologies the lighter-lift MH-60S could employ, however, that the Navy now plans to keep those aging MH-53Es in service through 2025 and develop an unmanned undersea vehicle to hunt and kill mines instead of adapting the Sierra to the mission.
The USS Gravely (far right) leads a detachment of destroyers that has been escorting the USS Harry S. Truman (left). An MH-60R Seahawk takes off from the flight deck of the USS Gravely (middle left). Some MH-53Es (middle right) deployed with the Truman Strike Group. Photos courtesy of the U.S. Navy
Mines have been a genuine threat in the Arabian Gulf, so the Navy keeps minesweepers stationed in Bahrain to serve the Fifth Fleet. But for detecting and deterring surface threats, Ambrose said, she depends on her shipâs two Romeos.
âThey can fly out ahead of the force when weâre doing these Strait transits,â Ambrose said, referring to fairly regular trips in and out of the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. Jan. 9, Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval forces conducted a provocative live-fire missile-launching exercise less than a mile away as the Truman was passing through the Strait.
The MH-60Rs âcan fly in our region and far ahead of where the ship is and identify, track for us, just give us a good heads-up to whatâs coming,â Ambrose said.
âDaytime or nighttime, anywhere, anytime theyâre up in the air, we have a full picture of everything that theyâre seeing. If theyâre a hundred miles away from us, itâs like itâs right next door. We can see in the night on the flir [forward-looking infrared] camera. It really gives us so much better capability of knowing whatâs in the region in terms of identifying âthatâs a merchant ship, thatâs a dhow,â which is the most common kind of local craft here that looks like an Iranian patrol boat.â
Ambrose added, âWeâve had a couple of instances where the Iranian patrol boats have not operated in the way that we would appreciate, necessarily.â Sending a Romeo out to âoperate between us and them,â she said, is an effective way to send those Iranian boats the message that âwe want them to maintain distance from us.â The MH-60R, after all, can carry a.50-caliber or 7.62mm machine gun and fire up to eight AGM-114 Hellfire missiles from pylons left and right of the fuselage. The Romeo detects threats to the ships it protects using its APS-147 multi-mode radar and flir or daylight video camera. If submarine threats are the concern, the Romeo can carry a dipping sonar to find them and torpedoes to attack them if necessary.
âAbsolutely vitalâ is how Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, director of air warfare for the Chief of Naval Operations, describes the Navyâs rotorcraft. Manazir began his career as an F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot, but after commanding the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) from 2007 to 2009 and leading Carrier Strike Group 8 from aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) from 2011 to 2013, he came to appreciate the helicopterâs anti-submarine warfare role in particular.
âThe biggest threat that I worried about as a carrier skipper was a submarine,â Manazir said. âAnd now, with the proliferation of cruise missiles launched from a submarine, I have to be able to detect those submarines.â
The MH-60 Romeo does that well, Manazir said, because of its dipping sonar â an improvement over the predecessor SH-60B, whose primary antisubmarine sensor was a surface sonobuoy, a device the Romeo also carries. During a ride on a Los Angeles-class attack submarine a couple of years ago, Manazir said, âI asked the captain, âWhat really keeps you up at night?â He said, âThree helos dipping. Everything else I can get away from, but if you throw three of our Romeos on us with dipping sonars, I canât get away from them.ââ
Beyond the remaining MH-60 Romeos and the CMV-22B Ospreys the Navy is buying, the service has no helicopter acquisition plans until the Defense Dept.âs Future Vertical Lift (FVL) initiative starts delivering anticipated new types of VTOL aircraft in the mid-2030s or after. âWe expect these helicopters are going to last a while,â said Andrews.
Perhaps for that reason, but also because of the nature of most naval helicopter missions, the Navy appears less interested than the Army and Marine Corps in the faster medium-lift rotorcraft sought in the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstration (JMR-TD), the first project under the FVL umbrella expected to bear fruit. JMR-TD is developing test models of two very different next-generation medium-lift VTOL aircraft, both offering far greater speed than todayâs conventional helicopters with greater hovering capacity and agility. The JMR demonstrators, scheduled for first flight in 2017, are Bell Helicopterâs V-280 Valor tiltrotor and the joint Sikorsky Boeing SB>1 Defiant, a compound helicopter with a coaxial rotor and a pusher propeller.
Naval Air Warfare Director Manazir said the Navy just isnât as interested in speed as the Marine Corps and Army. âThe ability to get greater loads on and off of a small landing space is whatâs important to me,â Manazir said. What the Navy primarily needs in future rotorcraft, he said, is improved VTOL and hover capabilities. Beyond that, Manazir said, the Navy wants a rotary-wing force with âgreater capability in lift, greater capability in range, greater capability in information sharing.â
On the latter point, Manazir suggested that he, at least, is much more interested in improving the technologies that allow Navy rotorcraft to achieve their missions than in the aerodynamic performance of the vehicles that carry those technologies.
âI think the skyâs the limit with innovation in rotary wing,â Manazir said. âI innovate a lot in fixed wing. My mission systems are always [being improved]. I donât do the same thing in helicopters. I want to do that same kind of thing in helicopters with mission systems.â
Transforming At-Sea Supply?
The U.S. Navyâs use of V-22s for its âcarrier onboard deliveryâ mission should transform at-sea logistics in the same way the tiltrotor has changed ground-based supply for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the aircraftâs manufacturers.
Bell Boeing V-22 program leaders said the âCODâ tiltrotorâs speed and range will allow Navy carrier battle groups to operate farther from logistics bases ashore and permit ships within those groups to operate at greater sustainable distances from each other.
The Navy plans to start getting 44 tiltrotors (designated CMV-22Bs) in fiscal 2018.
âThe V-22 has the ability to increase the speed of sea-based logistics by over half and throughout of supplies by at least 50%,â said Keith Danel, director of global military business development at Bell Helicopter.
His Boeing counterpart, Rick Lemaster, added that the V-22 âcan leapfrog distancesâ those battle groups can operate from logistics ashore, carry supplies directly to ships other than the central carrier and operate independently of the carrierâs fixed-wing launch-and-trap deck cycles. Lemaster is Boeingâs tiltrotor global sales and marketing director.