Defence Business: Seasprite – what went wrong? | ADM Nov 08

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The problems with the Super Seasprite program were designed into the project from the outset. By the time they had become obvious Defence had reached the classic point of no return: it would have cost more to cancel the project and acquire a new aircraft, than to proceed with it.
Max Blenkin and Gregor Ferguson

The Super Seasprite debacle had its genesis in four decisions made by the Department of Defence during the mid-1990s.

The first was to pursue a joint program with Malaysia to design and build a new class of Offshore Patrol Combatants (OPC).

The second was to procure a helicopter which would be embarked upon both the OPC and the Royal Australian Navy’s new Anzac-class frigates.

The third decision was that this helicopter should be equipped with a highly capable anti-ship missile whose stand-off range would protect the launch aircraft from the target ship’s own defences.

Finally, it was decided that the helicopter should have an all-new avionics and sensor suite to enable it to be flown by a two-man crew rather than the three-man crew which is normal aboard naval helicopters.

These decisions effectively doomed the project to an ignominious death.

The 1,350 tonne OPC (Malaysia, which required 27 ships, referred to it as an Offshore Patrol Vessel, or OPV) dictated the size and weight of the helicopter the RAN would buy: this ship was too small to accommodate the 10-tonne S-70B2 Seahawk which already equipped the RAN’s six Adelaide-class FFG-7 frigates.

A lighter helicopter in the 5-6 tonne class was required, and as no helicopters had been procured as yet for the RAN’s new Anzac-class frigates it was decided these should embark the same helicopter as the OPV.

To meet the RAN’s needs the new helicopter needed to be able to carry the Mk46 lightweight anti-submarine torpedo and the Kongsberg Penguin Mk2 Mod7 anti-ship missile.

The Penguin Mk2 weighs 385kg and is 3m long; its warhead alone weighs 125kg.

It is a sub-sonic sea-skimmer with a range of more than 34km and uses passive infra red guidance.

The early contenders were the Royal Navy’s Westland Super Lynx, the Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin/Panther operated by the US Coastguard and French Navy, a marinised variant of the Sikorsky S-76 and, unexpectedly, a Russian light helicopter design.

The US Navy’s Kaman Sh-2G Super Seasprite was a late entrant to the contest.

The Royal New Zealand Navy also sought a new helicopter for its two Anzac frigates and monitored the RAN’s program closely, but without committing to acquire the same aircraft.

It is arguable that if the OPV/OPC Program had never existed the RAN would have sought a less capable variant of its S-70B2 Seahawk anti-submarine helicopter to equip its Anzac frigates; Sikorsky had made itself no friends in Canberra during the Seahawk program, however, so this is a moot point.

In any event, the other contenders dropped out of the contest, leaving just Westland and Kaman to fight it out.

Two vrs three crew

Most maritime helicopters operating in the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) or Anti-Surface ship Warfare (ASuW) roles have a three-man crew; in order to reduce manpower costs the RAN demanded a two-crew aircraft, combining the previously separate roles of the Tactical Coordinator (TACCO) and Sensor Operator (SENSO).

Whichever helicopter was selected would require an all-new mission system, including avionics architecture and Human-Machine Interface (HMI).

This was a highly ambitious technical goal at that time.

The Westland Super Lynx was offered with the combat-proven British Aerospace (now MBDA) Sea Skua short-range anti-ship missile, a new avionics and sensor suite based on that of the EH101 helicopter and LHTEC CTS800 engines.

While it could carry two Penguins, their extra weight reduced the helicopter’s operational radius significantly.

The Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprite, a re-working of the company’s proven, Vietnam-era light SH-2F Seasprite, had greater power (from two General Electric T700 engines, similar to those powering the RAN’s existing Seahawks) and payload and could easily carry the Penguin while offering the performance, range and endurance sought by the RAN.

The RNZN was also attracted to the Super Seasprite, especially as the SH-2G model had largely the same sensor and avionics fit as the US Navy’s SH-60 Seahawks.

In March 1996 Westland and Kaman submitted tenders for 14 aircraft, with options to bring the total up to 23 or 30 in all.

On 17 January 1997, a month before tenders for Malaysia’s OPV contract were due, Australia’s minister for defence, Ian McLachlan, announced the RAN would acquire 11 SH-2G(A) Super Seasprites under Project Sea 1411 to equip its eight Anzac-class frigates, with options to buy more if the OPC program went ahead.

Two months later the RNZN also selected the Super Seasprite.

Australia’s 11 aircraft were to be equipped with an all-new Integrated Tactical Avionics System (ITAS) developed by Litton Guidance & Controls in Northridge, California.

The highly automated ITAS was designed to reduce cockpit workload and provide the full TACCO and SENSO functionality required for two-man operations.

The RAN also selected the proven Telephonics AN/APS-143 inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR), the Raytheon AN/AAQ-16 FLIR, the Elisra AES-210 ESM system and the high capacity Link 11 Tactical Data Link (TDL).

The ITAS replaced the SH-2G’s existing and proven ASN-150 tactical navigation computer, and an all-new digital Automated Flight Control System (AFCS) replaced the Seasprite’s proven and reliable Automatic Stabilisation System (ASE), which had flown 1.1 million hours in US Navy service without encountering significant problems.

While the Super Seasprite was a logical choice of platform in that weight class, previous upgrades had been funded and overseen by the US Navy and Kaman had never had sole responsibility for managing the development of an all-new avionics architecture and flight control system.

Although Litton was an acknowledged leader at that time in maritime airborne systems integration, both Kaman and the DMO were steering into uncharted waters.

Kaman and the DMO signed the $660 million prime contract in June 1997, with deliveries scheduled for 2001.

OPC program founders

In October 1997 Australia’s OPC program foundered when the Malaysian government announced that German shipyard Blohm+Voss had won its OPV contract.

Project Sea 1411 carried on, but it was clear the options to acquire further helicopters wouldn’t be exercised.

Much of the subsequent history of the project is well documented.

The original 2001 delivery date came and went without any aircraft being handed over to the RAN.

Just how bad things were became clear at a hearing of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee on 21 February 2002.

Air Vice Marshal Ray Conroy, head of the DMO’s aerospace systems division, told the committee software integration problems in the ITAS would delay service entry until about December 2004.

Worse still, Litton had defaulted on its fixed-price sub-contract to develop the ITAS – Kaman terminated the contract in late-2001 and appointed two new sub-contractors to finish development: Canberra-based CSC Australia Pty Ltd, and Northrop Grumman Integrated Technology.

By February 2002, the DMO had already paid the company some $780 million - nearly 80 per cent of the total fixed-price contract value of $1.017 billion Australian dollars, Conroy said.

But so far only six aircraft had been built and these remained in Kaman’s possession at Nowra.

Worst of all, Defence’s fixed price contract with Kaman didn’t include provision for liquidated damages.

If the contractor failed to deliver entirely, or if it delivered aircraft significantly behind schedule, the contract provided no means of applying sanctions.

There was no way the DMO could get its money back, or its money’s worth, except by holding on grimly and driving Kaman to deliver the aircraft it had promised.

Defence had little choice but to press on with the program.

Progress was painfully slow, but Kaman maintains the ITAS software was very nearly complete by early 2006.

However, a new problem had emerged: an anomaly in the helicopter’s air data computer which caused uncommanded control inputs by the AFCS.

Defence warned this could have been disastrous at night or in poor visibility, especially if the pilot was taking off or landing on a small flight deck.

The problem with the air data computer was not uncommon within the avionics industry and was isolated and resolved quickly.

Kaman and Defence had previously encountered a similar issue during early flight testing and, according to sources close to the program, agreed this wasn’t a major problem.

But by 2006 Defence was in no mood to take chances, especially after the previous year’s Sea King tragedy at Nias Island in Indonesia.

It demanded more flight testing of the AFCS software; furthermore, recent changes in Defence’s airworthiness certification regime meant that the AFCS would also now require a new software error-checking system compliant with the US Federal Aviation Administration’s Design Assurance Level DO-178B avionics certification regime to ensure the safety of the aircraft under all flight conditions.

Kaman estimated this would take $40 million and 29 months; Defence argued it would take $200 million.

The wrangling continued through 2007 and the stalemate wasn’t broken until 5 March 2008 when new defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced the cancellation of the project.

Lessons form history

It’s fair to say the RAN, the DMO and the contractor were the prisoners of key decisions made during the 1990s.

Many of the major problems with this project stemmed from the requirement for a two-man crew, and therefore an all-new, integrated avionics and flight control system.

The cost, schedule and technical risks involved meant that doing this for a fleet of just 11 aircraft was a massive mistake.

With the benefit of hindsight the question must be asked: Why?

Why was the requirement for a two-man crew considered so important that it justified these risks?

And why did Defence entrust the development of this all-new avionics and flight control system to a company which had never carried out such a complex task before?

Given the risks involved, the project’s management and structure were fundamentally flawed from the outset and this ultimately determined its outcome.

Getting it wrong has cost Australian taxpayers $1 billion, while the capability this money was meant to acquire won’t now enter service until Phase 8 of Project Air 9000 delivers new maritime helicopters some time in the second half of the next decade – 20 years after Sea 1411 got under way.

Authors’ note: This is an abridged version of a longer, more detailed examination of the Super Seasprite project which can be accessed through the ADM web site at
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