By John R. Guardiano | May 1, 2004
Send Feedback

Two new aircraft types and an updated concept of operations are leveling the playing field for Navy helicopter pilots.

Commander Mark Deardurff hesitated before responding. "I don't like to use the term 'second-class citizen.' But it gets us more into a war-fighting capability than we had in the past, and that is key. We will now be playing a much more critical role in the defense of the battle group."

A former helicopter squadron commander, he now works as a requirements officer in the Pentagon, where I interviewed him. He was talking about the Navy's updated helicopter concept of operations and the service's new Sikorsky MH-60 Romeo and Sierra rotorcraft.


I'd asked Deardurff whether this means helicopter pilots no longer will be second-class citizens to the Navy's glorified fighter jocks. He winced at the question, but said helo operations clearly are central to naval transformation.

Indeed, the updated operational concept significantly expands Navy rotorcraft's mission profile and gives their pilots unprecedented command opportunities. This is possible because of the new aircraft, which are vastly more capable than those they are replacing. "The Romeo and Sierra will be, without question, the most technologically advanced helicopters ever to enter the fleet," said Vice Adm. John Nathman, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare requirements and programs.

Rotorcraft are the common thread required to realize the offensive capabilities of future naval war-fighting units, said Rear Adm. Anthony L. Winns, deputy director for air warfare. "With more rotorcraft in the naval battle group than ever before, mission tasking is on the increase, and transformation of the rotorcraft concept of operations is the key to future operations."

"Helos are our only growth industry" in naval aviation, said Capt. Don Quinn of the Naval Personnel Command. When the Navy begins doubling to two the number of helicopter squadrons per carrier in 2008, at least 56 percent of all naval aviators will be helicopter pilots, he observed.

Rotary-wing aviators also are assuming more positions of leadership. Those filling top command billets include Capt. Kendall Card, commanding officer of the USS Abraham Lincoln, and COs of four of the Navy's 12 large-deck amphibious ships. Capt. Ed McNamee, a rotary-wing aviator, is slated to take command of the USS Kitty Hawk next year, Quinn said.

Rotary-wing squadron commanders, he added, will have the same chance as fixed-wing COs to command nuclear-powered carriers. Helo pilots have not vied for these leadership positions because they weren't competitive. However, this will change when there are two helicopter squadrons in each carrier air wing, Quinn said.

The helicopters in those units, the MH-60 Romeo and Sierra, will give rotary-wing aviators unprecedented war-fighting capabilities, according to service officials.

The airframes don't differ much from the seven rotorcraft types they are replacing. The helicopters are distinguished instead by their avionics and mission equipment packages, which exploit modern, digital technologies.

The remanufactured Sierra is basically an enlarged SH-60B Seahawk, with the same T-700-GE-401C engines, rotor system and dynamic components. The Romeo's newly manufactured airframe is an improved version of the SH-60Bs and SH-60Fs it is replacing.

The Sierra requires more cabin space because it is being used for logistical supply missions, such as vertical replenishment, vertical onboard delivery, and special warfare troop insertion and recovery operations, including combat search and rescue. The Romeo will be used for anti-surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare.

The Lockheed Martin-developed cockpit includes four 8x10-in. active liquid crystal displays, dual programmable operator key sets, dual flight management computers, a digitized audio management system, and a dual-embedded GPS and inertial navigation system.

The new glass cockpit is a huge improvement over the Navy's current analog cockpits, said the MH-60 program manager, Capt. Bill Shannon. Analog cockpits frequently break down and repairs typically require installation of new hardware, which is laborious and time-consuming. The modern glass cockpit is far more reliable and problems can be remedied usually with new software, which requires less time and labor, Shannon said.

Analog cockpit displays have been computerized and incorporated into the flight control system. This significantly reduces pilot workload and the opportunity for a mishap or accident. It is not quite fly-by-wire flight control, but it's close. Fly-by-wire likely will be included in a future block upgrade, program officials said.

The Romeo and Sierra also embrace commercial, off-the-shelf technology to address technological and parts obsolescence. The idea is that aircraft upgrades can be realized through new software, which is less costly and less problematic than new hardware.

"A new sensor used to require a new piece of hardware in the cockpit. Now it's cycled through the mission computer," Shannon said. "It's not something mechanical that weighs down the aircraft. It's a new piece of data that the pilot sees on his display."

This is important because both aircraft will be part of a developing joint Navy war-fighting team. The new team includes the Maritime Pre-positioning Ship of the future, Littoral Combat Ship and the High Speed Vessel. "As we develop these platforms and concepts, the MH-60 will be tailored, through spiral acquisition, to meet the capabilities required of the joint theater commander," Nathman said.

The MH-60R/S will be armed with Hellfire missiles, torpedoes and machine guns. However, the Romeo will carry more sensors and mission equipment and fewer guns and munitions than the Sierra. "The Romeo, basically, is the hunter. The Sierra is the killer," Shannon said. "They'll be employed together, but have distinct mission profiles."

Toward that end, the MH-60R will have a new multi-mode radar, forward-looking infrared, electronic surveillance system, high-bandwidth data link, integrated self-defense suite and a retrievable AQS-22, airborne low frequency, dipping sonar. "The Romeo will be the Navy's leading sensor and weapons suite for future carrier strike groups," Shannon said. "It will be our preeminent [anti-submarine warfare] platform."

In addition to its logistical, troop insertion, and combat search and rescue missions, the Sierra will be tasked with mine detection and neutralization. The aircraft can not perform all of these missions simultaneously. Each mission requires a distinct kit or package, which forward-deployed squadrons can fit and replace on the aircraft.

The Navy lacks a carrier-based mine neutralization capability, aka organic airborne mine countermeasures. Dedicated MH-53E Sea Dragons instead are airlifted into theater from ashore to dispose of mines. But this delays the carrier battle group, and many Sea Dragons have reached their fatigue life. That's why the Navy is pushing ahead with development of five new sensory and neutralization systems-to make an indigenous mine neutralization capability a reality.

"If you're not on-scene with your minesweeper and you have to transit, your timelines are incredibly long," said Vice Adm. Cutler Dawson, deputy chief of naval operations for resources, requirements and assessments.

The Sierra was chosen for mine neutralization ops because it has more room to accommodate weighty sensors and systems. The MH-60S also can tow a sonar; its tail wheel, like that of the Black Hawk, is far aft, permitting a tow cable to descend freely to the water. The Romeo's tail wheel is farther forward to permit landings on smaller ships with less deck space.

Still, the Sierra has roughly a third of the max gross weight of the MH-53E-23,500 lb. versus 69,700 lb., respectively. Moreover, its mine detection and neutralization systems can be run by four crewmen. The Sea Dragon's require seven.

What will make the Sierra suitable for mine neutralization missions is lighter and more advanced technology, which can fulfill the same mission more efficiently with less manpower and less of a logistical footprint.

21st Century Combat

Technological advances are not the only thing making rotorcraft more relevant to the Navy. The battle space has become more compressed and dominated by asymmetric threats within the littorals. The U.S. Navy is no longer threatened by comparable navies with the inclination and wherewithal to engage it directly. The symmetric threat is of minimal concern, because the United States has overwhelming military superiority. Moreover, countries with the ability to threaten the United States on the high seas are, for the most part, peaceful and democratic.

Today's threat comes from countries with less military capability, but hostile intentions-North Korea, Iran, and Syria, for example-and their terrorist allies. This asymmetric threat employs mines, fast boats, and suicide bombers.

The October 12, 2000, suicide bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 servicemen is prototypical here. The versatility and agility that helicopters bring into battle is indispensable to confronting this threat, service officials said.

In short, Navy rotorcraft are taking on a broader mission profile in defense of the carrier battle group. This won't be fully realized until 2016, when the Navy expects to have a total MH-60R/S force. In the meantime, the Romeo and Sierra are taking on a host of anti-submarine, anti-surface and electronic surveillance missions once performed by the S-3B Viking, which is being retired after 30 years of service.

The Sierra achieved its initial operating capability (IOC) in 2002 and 64 have been procured to date. The Romeo is scheduled to achieve that capability in the first quarter of 2006. The Navy plans to procure 254 Romeos and 271 Sierras. Each carrier strike group will have 12 Romeos and eight Sierras.

The Navy has stood up a training squadron for the Sierra on the East and West Coasts. The East Coast unit is forward-deployed in Guam. The West Coast squadron is based in San Diego.

Because it is a new helicopter type, with modern technology, pilots like the Sierra. "It's always an improvement to have a brand new airplane," said Capt. Mitch Sweeker, wing commander for the West Coast squadron.

Training squadrons previously employed the CH-46D Sea Knight, which will be completely retired by September. The Sierra, Sweeker noted, flies more smoothly, is less labor intensive, has lower operating, maintenance and support costs and uses 21st century avionics.

Scratching the Surface

The Sea Knight has roughly twice the internal cargo space of the Sierra. However, the MH-60S can carry 1,000-2,000 lb. more external load than the CH-46D's 3,000-4,000 lb., Sweeker estimated.

"We've only scratched the surface of what this aircraft is capable of achieving."

That's because the Navy has only taken delivery of Block I and IIA Sierras. New systems and new technologies will be inserted and retrofitted through planned block upgrades via a process dubbed spiral development. This enables the Pentagon to field aircraft quickly while simultaneously exploiting technological advances not available when the aircraft first was procured.

The Navy began procuring Block IIA Sierras in August 2003. These have the Raytheon AQS-20 airborne mine hunting sonar and the Northrop Grumman Airborne Laser Mine Detection System, Deardurff said.

Three more systems, he noted, are required for a comprehensive mine neutralization suite. These will be procured with the aim of achieving IOC in Fiscal 2007. Block II also includes extended-range fuel tanks for SAR missions.

Block III allows for special warfare troop insertion and extraction missions. According to Deardurff, these upgrades include a flir, Hellfire missile system, integrated electronic self-defense suite, radar warning detector, plume detector and infrared jammers.

"Right now, the Sierra is strictly a maritime patrol aircraft," Sweeker said, "and doesn't have the fuel legs that it could. We also need to do more flight testing to expand its wind envelope."

Additional testing and development is required as well to remedy operational deficiencies highlighted by Pentagon Comptroller Don Zakheim in December, when he rejected the Navy's proposal to accelerate MH-60R procurement. Operational testing has since been delayed by up to 10 months because of problems with software integration, mission planning and training, service officials said.

But according to Cmdr. Joseph Bauknecht, a helicopter requirements officer, such difficulties are common for any new aircraft. The 10-month testing delay will result perhaps in a two-month delay in the IOC, he said. "There are going to be issues that arise during the testing phase; that's why we test airplanes. Otherwise, we'd just take them to the factory, buy them and send them to the fleet."

The MH-60 program also hit turbulence in late February, when the U.S. military stopped accepting all H-60 deliveries. The stoppage allowed the Defense Contract Management Agency and Sikorsky to address systemic manufacturing problems. These including stripped bolts, leaking gearboxes, bolts insufficiently tightened and incorrect parts installed on the aircraft.

The increasing importance of Navy rotorcraft is spelled out in the service's revised concept of operations. The plan has three essential pillars: It doubles from 10 to 20 the number of forward-deployed helicopter squadrons. It places the commanding officers of these carrier-based squadrons on the carrier. (Half of the COs previously had been shore-based, away from their units.) It places the squadrons under the sea-based command of the carrier air wing rather than under the sea combatant commander.

Nathman said the leap in capability represented by the MH-60R/ S "has compelled naval aviation to reexamine fundamental concepts of operation, community organization, and command and staff relationships for the naval helicopter force."

The new concept also includes name changes that better reflect rotorcraft's broadened mission profile. The service's 10 helicopter anti-submarine squadrons (designated HS) are being renamed helicopter sea combat squadrons (HSC). The 10 anti-submarine light squadrons (HSL) are being dubbed helicopter maritime strike squadrons (HSM). The six shore-based, expeditionary combat-support squadrons (HC) are being christened expeditionary HSC squadrons.

(In Navy lingo, a shore-based helicopter squadron is "expeditionary." It can be tasked for contingency missions that do not involve the carrier strike group.)

The bottom line: the Navy will have two distinct types of helicopter squadrons, HSC and HSM, versus three types-HS, HSL, and HC-today.

The Upshot

The Navy has two MH-53E mine-hunting squadrons (HM), which likely will be retired within 5-7 years, once the Sierra has developed a sufficient mine neutralization capability, service officials said.

Squadron size won't really change. However, there will be 34 operational squadrons versus 28 today. The Navy is adding five new expeditionary HSM squadrons and one new expeditionary HSC squadron. The number of training squadrons-which aren't included in these tallies-will be cut from five to four.

The upshot for Navy helicopter pilots is more opportunities for command and, in time, more commanders, captains, and admirals with gold helicopter wings on their uniforms. This represents a big career boost for the service's rotorcraft community, and gives prospective aviators an incentive to become helicopter pilots.

Equally important is that real but intangible benefit called pride. Military helicopter pilots are no different from any one else who dons the uniform. They want to know what they're doing is central-and not peripheral-to the overall mission.

That traditionally has been difficult for Navy helicopter pilots. The service has long glorified its fighter jocks while giving short shrift to rotary-wing aviators. But that's changing, as helicopters take on increasing importance as a naval war-fighting asset.

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox