Black Hawks and LHDs Incompatible?
Detailed analysis by the RAN's Amphibious and Afloat Support Group has revealed serious shortcomings in the ability of the Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk to meet the core requirements of the Army's dominant mission profile off the new LHDs.
A submission to the Joint Amphibious Steering Group (JASG) early this year noted that the delay in selecting a preferred Additional Trooplift Helicopter (ATH) design under Phase 2 of Air 9000 was fortuitous as it allowed the issues surrounding synchronisation of the ATH and LHD capabilities to be fully explored and taken into account by the Air 9000 tender evaluation team.
In a nutshell, there was found to be a greater disparity in capability between the NH 90 and UH-60M for amphibious operations than for land operations. The submission is understood to have been successful in moving the JASG to acknowledge that selection of the UH-60M would prohibit simultaneously landing an Amphibious Aviation Combat Team (formerly known as a company group) by air using both LHDs.
Why does all this matter so much? Because it will mean that, in using the UH-60M, the central pillar in Army's endorsed Entry by Air and Sea (EAS) mission concept - which itself underpins the Manoeuvre Operations in the Littoral Environment (MOLE) operational concept - will collapse.
Essentially, for the amphibious mission the UH-60M has weaknesses inherent and fixed in its design in two critical areas. Firstly, its manual rotor blade attachment is very laborious, taking around 45 minutes per aircraft. The manual blade fold/unfold on the NH 90 takes about 15 minutes.
This excessive preparation time prevents adequate numbers of aircraft reaching the objective on time, in turn resulting in the UH-60Ms being unable to lift the required number of troops in the AACT - the 'air' part of EAS.
No longer simply a 100-120 strong rifle company, the AACT concept - established via the Army-DSTO Headline experimental process and endorsed by the Defence Capability Committee in February - has a dismounted AACT comprising 174-220 troops and invariably equipped with an array of man-portable heavy weapons: 40mm automatic grenade launchers, 12.7mm heavy machine guns, 81mm mortars, Javelin teams, anti-materiel rifle sniper teams etc. To carry the considerable quantities of ammunition needed to feed such weapons, quad bikes will also form part of the AACT. While the precise mix of heavy weapons to be allocated to the AACT would be task dependent, Headline analysis indicates that a AACT landing on an objective without heavy weapons support incurs an unsustainable number of casualties, with the result being mission failure and more soldiers killed.
As the UH-60M cannot carry internally a quad bike of any description, it must transport it and the ammunition stores as an underslung load. Even on the immensely powerful M model, this severely reduces the aircraft's flight speed and range and increases fuel consumption to the extent that it cannot make it back to the ship having flown 90nm out to an objective (an 'essential' requirement according to the Air 9000 RfP). Basically, calculations indicate that the UH-60M would run out of fuel (dry tanks, no reserves) on the return journey - literally.
By contrast, the NH 90 enjoys the luxury of being able to carry heavy weapons and a quad bike weighed down with ammunition either internally or externally. Either way, the NH 90's greater standard fuel load permits it to fly its cargo 90nm, drop it, then fly another 90nm back.
In view of such findings, it is indeed fortunate that Air 9000 has been delayed. At least now an integrated and co-ordinated RAN-Army evaluation of the LHDs and Air 9000 contenders can take place. After all, the two projects are intimately and undeniably intertwined.
By Ian Bostock, Sydney