Enter Seahawk – Exit Whitefox?

That Sweden has had a rough time with their NH 90-fleet is no secret. The HKP 14 as it is known locally was delayed to the extent that a batch of 15 UH-60M Blackhawk had to be acquired as a stop-gap for the MEDEVAC-role in Afghanistan due to the Swedish Super Pumas being retired and the NH90 still being quite some way off from entering service. The UH-60M has been a stunning success for the Swedes, becoming a reliable workhorse for the Swedish Armed Forces in general and the airmobile soldiers of the K 3 Livregementets hussarer (Life Regiment Hussars) in particular.

A US Navy MH-60R Seahawk from HSM-78 “Blue Hawks” releases flares during a training exercise. Note the half-full sonobouy dispenser (and lack of port side door), large radar disk under the front fuselage, and aft landing gear being significantly forward compared to a UH-60. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean M. Castellano via Wikimedia Commons

Now, unlike the situation in Finland where the NH90 eventually overcame the teething troubles to be widely accepted as a fully functioning and integrated part of the Finnish Defence Forces, the NH90 in Sweden has continued to struggle. To the extent that questions about the future of the platform has continued to be raised at regular intervals. A key part of the question is the role of the maritime mission sets which currently is outside the scope of Blackhawk operations. Instead, the Swedish NH 90-fleet sport two different versions: the transport-roled HKP 14E and the maritime-roled HKP 14F. Crucially, the HKP 14F is not an NH90 FFH, but a uniquely Swedish version based on the NH90 TTH (in addition both versions sport a higher cabin to provide a more ergonomic working environment, but the cost impact of that much-maligned feature at this stage is likely minor). The nine HKP 14F are equipped with a “tactical radar” (i.e. a maritime surveillance radar), dipping sonar, as well as sonobuoy launcher and processing capability. Keen readers will note that there are no weapons or datalinks in the description above, and that omission is not by accident.

Somehow, with Sweden being no stranger to neither airborne ASW-operations nor datalinks, it was originally decided against acquiring weapons or datalinks for the NH90, despite the platform being a key integrated part in both the surface and sub-surface warfare plans of the Swedish Navy. The realisation that this is stupid is nothing new, and has been discussed since before the helicopters were delivered. Eventually, common sense prevailed, and the latest long-term plan dictate that the integration of the new lightweight torpedo (TP 47) and a datalink will begin before 2025.

Back in 2018 it was reported that the Swedish Armed Forces looked into mothballing all of the transport-roled HKP 14E operating in northern Sweden to save money. A year later the issues continued, with lack of spares and too few trained technicians leading to fewer (and more costly) flight hours than planned, meaning that the northern Swedish Army units in Arvidsjaur (the recently reinstituted ranger regiment) and Boden have had a hard time getting the flight hours they need.

A HKP 14F, readily identifiable thanks to the large radar disk under the front fuselage. Source: Henrik Rådman/Försvarsmakten

Shortly before Christmas this year, it was reported that the armed forces again are looking at cutting the NH90-fleet. Following preliminary studies, there are two main options: one is to continue with the NH90 and go through with the planned upgrades for the HKP 14F to get the datalink and torpedo, while also ordering another batch of Blackhawks. The second option is to retire all NH90s, and instead go for a joint UH-60 Blackhawk/MH-60 Seahawk-fleet for all the helicopter needs of the Swedish Armed Forces (there is a third helicopter, the light AW109 which is in service as the HKP 15 and seem set for retirement without direct replacement). It is somewhat unclear what is supposed to happen with the HKP 14E, but considering the wish to buy more Blackhawks in both scenarios and the apparent focus on the maritime HKP 14F it does sound like the days of the HKP 14E in the army cooperation role is numbered.

On paper the joint Blackhawk/Seahawk-fleet sounds all nice and simple, and I will say that I am a big proponent of cutting losses and not succumbing to the sunken cost fallacy. At the same time, it is evident that the truth isn’t quite as straightforward.

Another unit which uses the UH-60M is the Swedish SERE- and Personnel Recovery-training unit FÖS, which sort under K 3. Here a UH-60M is out carrying a number of personnel of FÖS earlier this summer. Source: Bezav Mahmod/Försvarsmakten

A key reason why the UH-60M Blackhawk deal was so successful is that it was a rather straightforward need (move healthy and sick people and equipment quickly from point A to B) and that it was accepted to just grab what was already in US service and paint some Swedish crowns on the side (slight exaggeration, but not by much). It is significantly more doubtful if the same is the case for the highly technical ASW-role, case in point being the Danish order for the MH-60R Seahawk (affectionally known as Romeo thanks to the version-letter). Denmark received approval back in 2010 for nine MH-60R, and they achieved IOC in 2017. However, crucially Denmark opted for a non-ASW fitted MH-60R, and decided to include some unique equipment (including the NATO-standard harpoon-hydraulic deck-locking system instead of the US RAST, as well as specific emergency equipment). As such, they have largely operated in the SAR and fisheries protection role, and only now are they being refitted (“during the coming years”) to be able to operate in the ASW-role. This puts it more or less at the same schedule as the Swedish NH90, depending on when exactly “the coming years” is and how long the Swedish integration starting before 2025 takes.

A Danish MH-60R Seahawk in Greenland. Note the additional rescue kit fitted to one of the pylons, and the radar under the forward belly. Source: Forsvaret

Another major question is how the blue-water Romeo works in the brackish littorals of the Baltic Sea? That’s less of an issue for Denmark, where the majority of the time the helicopters will be working out in the North Sea or around Greenland, but for Sweden the Baltic Sea is the main playing field of the Navy. This is acknowledged by the Swedish Armed Forces, and is one of the key reasons why the NH90 NFH wasn’t bought. The plan now is to be able to get a USN helicopter over some time during next summer, and get to see how that performs in Swedish conditions. Obviously, even if the Romeo is chosen, there is a sliding scale between a HKP 16-style off-the-shelf buy and a stripped Romeo fitted with Swedish ASW-equipment and weapons dedicated to the Baltic Sea-environment. Obviously, the most extreme version would be to grab a UH-60M and start installing the extra equipment in that in the same way as is being done with the HKP 14F, something that certainly would be more costly at the outset but would provide a higher degree of synergies and also be based on a simpler platform compared to the navalised MH-60 (there certainly are synergies between the UH-60M and the MH-60R, but there certainly are differences as well). Because for the time being, and unlike Denmark, no Swedish vessel is able to accept either the Blackhawk or the NH90 (the Visby can take aboard the AW109, which honestly might be the feature most sorely missed if it is retired without replacement), meaning that features such as folding blades and tail are just adding extra weight, meaning that a converted Blackhawk might be attractive. A middle of the road alternative that most likely would only combine the worst of the two alternatives would be to use the MH-60S Knighthawk, the multi-role sister to the Romeo, and fit it with an ASW-suite. The Sierra is in essence a navalised version of the UH-60L fitted with the same cockpit and navalised systems as the Romeo (minus the ASW-stuff), and is used for a number of different missions in the US Navy.

Notable is that production for the US Navy has ended for both versions in 2018 (Romeo) and 2015 (Sierra) respectively, though export orders are keeping the production line of the Romeo warm (latest of which is an Australian order for additional Blackhawks and Seahawks to replace their NH90s a decade early in both the transport- and maritime-roles). The Sierra just might be easier to work with if Sweden would want a Seahawk, but with a fully Swedish mission system and if they then would run into some hardware/space-related issues, but the Romeo is by far the most likely alternative (ironically, one of the few prospective MH-60S export orders was for a Qatari contract where a mixed MH-60R/S-fleet lost to the NH90).

However, if we look at the other extreme, and Sweden would simply order nine MH-60R according to USN specifications, there certainly is some interesting options here. To begin with aligning what will be a very small fleet with the standard of a larger operator does provide significant benefits when it comes to operating and upgrade costs, and both spares and weapons would likely be available at a rather cheap rate. The USN training pipeline could potentially also be used, something that might become more of an issue if the AW109 is withdrawn from service.

(Keen readers might notice that several of these points figured prominently during discussions about the HX-program.)

The Romeo and its sensors almost certainly isn’t as well suited to the Baltic Sea as a fully kitted out HKP 14F would be, but here comes the classic question: is a 75 or 90% solution at half the cost the best bang for the buck (note the numbers are pure examples)? A key detail is that finding submarines is extremely difficult, and despite the technological advances is still highly reliant on skilled personnel with a good understanding of local conditions. If switching to a solution that technically might not be the best fit allow the crews to train more, the end result might still be more scrap metal at the bottom of the sea than would otherwise be the case.

The operator stations of the Swedish HKP 14F. While all Swedish Armed Forces helicopters belong to the Air Force, many of those associated with the maritime helicopters have a background in the Navy (including both crew members aboard the helicopters as well as the current commanding officer of the unit). Source: Henrik Rådmark/Försvarsmakten

However – and this is an aspect that the Swedish evaluation will find hard to overlook – ASW is seen as a significant strategic interest for the Swedish defence industry, and killing the HKP 14F with its Saab-designed and built tactical mission system (including domestic sonar) will prove politically difficult. The orders are already far and few between, and with the Armed Forces in general short on funding a decision to acquire a standard Romeo is bound to raise uncomfortable questions. If the Mark 54 is good enough for the heliborne ASW-component, perhaps it is so for the rest of the force as well? What about sensors and processing units? This obviously also ties in with the same questions asked about the small submarine force, as many of the systems rest on a solid knowledge of similar topics (including e.g. Torped 47 as the obvious common weapon system). Giving up the locally developed sensors and weapons on the helicopter might very well come back to bite the Navy at a later stage when it is time for an upgrade of shipboard sensors and systems. As such, the decision on how to proceed with the helicopter part of things shouldn’t be taken lightly.

In the end, a Swedish Romeo-mod might still turn out to the be the best and cheapest option overall. However, the speedy UH-60M buy might not be the best reference point. Rather a highly complex project that hopefully can salvage the lessons (and potentially some hardware) from the current HKP 14F-fleet is to be expected, and I would not be surprised if the FOC date more or less corresponds to what would be the case for a full datalink and torpedo integration for the NH90.

An MH-60R Seahawk (in this case from HSM-73 “Battlecats”) – soon in a littoral theatre near you? Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Logan C. Kellums via Wikimedia Commons

(And since I know you will ask: I don’t foresee Finland acquiring ex-Swedish NH90s to increase the size of the Finnish fleet, though I certainly could imagine some being acquired for cannibalisation in case the spares situation is as poor as the Australian decision seem to indicate)

16 thoughts on “Enter Seahawk – Exit Whitefox?

  1. Anonyymimuumi

    I wonder, whether we in Finland do something especially right with the NH90 fleet or why I do seem to understand that others have lots of trouble with theirs? Are we just keeping our mouths shut better? 🙂

    Either way, interesting article that had thorough pondering of the complex implications of seemingly simple decision. Nice work!

    Happy New Year, Monsieur Caporal and all the fellow readers!

    1. I have been spending quite some time wondering about that as well. One obvious reason might be that in Finnish service the only point of comparison for the NH90 is the Mi-8, but on the other hand the Border Guards fly a more varied fleet so I don’t buy that the FDF just hasn’t gotten a good point of comparison in the same way as the Swedes or Australians and therefore don’t understand what a good helicopter is. And while FDF generally doesn’t talk down their own systems openly, the truth usually does get out eventually. Thing about NH90 is I can’t say I’ve heard any serious rumours about poor performance in recent years from the Finnish users.

      Some users are also very happy with it, and while I don’t necessarily trust the French to be objective the Germans (who are more open to buying US stuff over European) recently decided to buy an additional batch (called NH90 Sea Tiger) based on the NFH for the same mission set as the HKP 14F to complement the earlier NH90 Sea Lion multirole/SAR-helicopters, so the user experience does seem to vary.

      1. Anonyymimuumi

        Wasn’t there a common NH90 buy for the Nordics originally? How’s the Norwegians doing with their NH90? The strange thing would be, if the Nordics have totally different operating experiences when they probably share their tips and tricks openly between each other.

        Perhaps we’re talking two things here — the base helicopter and the modifications? The latter being the problem for some users?

      2. There was, and then reality struck.

        The Danes jumped ship, they have instead gotten the WH101 (former EH101) for the transport/SAR role, and now the MH-60R for the maritime role.

        Norway ordered the NH90 NFH for coast guard and naval missions, and they have had a number of issues as well. The IOC is set for 2022, though they have been based on coast guard vessels and from there flown some missions already (including SAR/MEDEVAC).

        …and then we have the Swedish case.

        And finally Finland, who was the sole country to order the basic NH90 TTH transport helicopter du the need being for a tactical transport and not for maritime use.

      3. Anonyymimuumi

        @PG according to wikipedia, it did. Also according to wikipedia, the experiences have been wildly varying between the operators. NZ seemingly happy and Australia not — both using almost similar MRH variant. Puzzling to say the least. Apparently spare parts availability have been a problem here and there.

        The manufacturer (Airbus) says: “As a common platform for all missions, the NH90’s tactical transport (TTH) and NATO frigate helicopter (NFH) versions use common systems, facilitating parallel design and simplifying their logistics support footprint.

        Having one core training system for pilots and maintenance technicians, along with a core maintenance and spares system, significantly reduces lifecycle costs.”

        I take the Airbus’ description that the base helicopters are pretty similar mechanically (expect perhaps for the corrosion protection) and basic avionics. Perhaps there have been software integration issues with modifications (a monolithic avionics SW?) to delay development and some teething problems with new composite materials, assembly and maintenance resulting in low mechanical readiness?

      4. > Thing about NH90 is I can’t say I’ve heard any serious rumours about poor performance in recent years from the Finnish users.

        I think it’s important to note that at least for Sweden, there doesnt seem to be any complaints about actual performance, just cost and spare parts. From what I have heard, all crews and units are very happy with the helicopter itself.

  2. PG

    Interesting subject to a complicated matter!

    How to use them in comming years, Seahawk have smaller weelbase than Blackhawk just for landing on narrow aereas as ships,e.g Visby2 and your new fregatts as well landbases.

    They should be fully eqviped to defend themself as well as strike against subs and ships a.s.o.

    I will see Blackhawk be able to get the armed fassilitys for suporting ground troops minigun, missiles!

    I know christmas is over!
    But a new year will come for all of us!

  3. MikeKiloPapa

    I dont see any reason why the MH-60Rs sensors should be any less effective in the Baltic than HKP 14F. Its mission systems and the AN/AQS-22 ALFS* dipping sonar was developed just as much for shallow water ASW in the littorals as for open water operation. The baltic is not the only shallow water with a challenging acoustic environment after all.

    The NH-90 is superiour in one area though….its size. The larger cabin allows for 2 large operator stations/consoles compared to the single smaller console in the Romeo, which is hampered by its fairly cramped cabin. Having two dedicated sensor operators for the sonar, sonar buoys and radar etc is a significant advantage.

    * Essentially an americanized version of Thales FLASH dipping sonar used on many of the NFH-90 versions, like the french Caiman ASW helicopter.

    Also as a side note wrt the danish MH-60Rs, while an FMS approval was filed for in 2010, it was for a POSSIBLE sale. The Seahawk wasnt actually selected until november 2012, with IOC as you mentioned in 2017 ( a process yours truly was a part of btw)

  4. Silver Dart

    The least we can say, is that NH90 has a troubled story. I take note that Corporal doesn’t particularly trust the French to be objective (why do you think that by the way? why should the French be less objective than others?) but what I can say for my part is that the road isn’t easy for NH90 in France as well.
    We have TTH (Transport version) and NFH (Naval version) and both had and still have issues.
    I would have the same opinion than ztrand : it’s not about performance but rather cost and spare parts.
    It’s a pity to see the kind of failure we’re in with countries such as Australia and Sweden switching to Black Hawk to replace NH90. How Airbus is letting this happen? It’s terrible for its business future. Especially with Tiger having similar issues.

    1. EMK

      Does anyone know more details about the NH90 spare parts problem?

      Is it, that more spares are needed than anticipated (shorter than expected part life, which may be due to a design flaw or a manufacturing quality problem)?

      Or is it that they cannot make the spares at sufficient rate (a manufacturing capacity problem)?

      Or is it that the parts won’t find their way to the end-users fast enough (a logistic problem)?

      Only a design flaw that causes shorter than anticipated part life is a serious problem and can be, in the worst case, difficult to solve without an expensive additional effort. All the other reasons are fundamentally organizational and can be fixed, in principle, more easily. Unless, of course, the organization has gone too far the wrong way for too long and is basically in disarray.

      An example of an organization that seems to be in such a deep trouble is Boeing. They have serious problems in producing well behaving software for their products (737 Max, Starliner spacecraft) and even finding the root cause(s) for the equipment malfunctions (Starliner).

      I am wondering if the NH90 spare problems may be an indication that NHIndustries is suffering similar organizational problems?

      Does anyone know what is actually going on with NHIndustries and what’s the story behind the spare parts problems?

    2. Well, France is known for the high importance placed on strategic autonomy and that includes producing key systems at home. No matter how difficult the NH90 might be, I would expect France to rework the helicopter until it works, rather than buy from the US.

  5. Christopher Andersson

    Sweden is always looking to save money in a extreme why to be as cheap as posible in the defence sector. With these stupid logic they shuld just buy ukranian or russian helicopters. Cheap but not political correct.

  6. Svenska kocken

    To use heavy helicopters to haul around pilots and crew plus the accompanying systems seems expensive and compliacated. What technolodies could/will be developed in the near/medium term time frame?

    Airborne littoral ASW seems like a good area for development of future UAV capabilities. The near shore environments could be ideal for use of short/medium range networked mobile sensor platforms.

    Maybe renting the cabability from the US could be a good bridge gap solution? At least until Sweden have developed a more holisitc long term maritime strategy.

    1. Kristian

      I agree that using drones for surveillance (EO/IR, maybe radar and dropping sonobuoys) would be useful in ASW. But once you find a target you need to deal with it and time is of the essence in the littoral where contacts often quickly slip away. It might not be possible to wait for a ship to get into position to fire.

      That means that it would be a huge benefit if the sensor platform was also armed and that means it needs to be of a fairly large size to have the needed carrying capacity. You basically need a helicopter and remote controlling a large, expensive, UAV is out because that won’t work in a hot war.

      So I see small/medium sized UAVs as a complement to ASW helicopters – not a replacement.

Comments are closed.