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NAVAIR Rotary-Wing Programs

The Naval Air Systems Command modernizes nearly every rotary-wing community pending the next big step in vertical lift.

The U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has made good on plans to modernize rotary-wing aviation across the Navy and Marine Corps. In January, the last MH-60S Knight Hawk off the production line completed the infusion of vertical replenishment, airborne mine countermeasures, and armed helo capabilities into Navy Helicopter Sea Combat squadrons. First flight of the CH-53K King Stallion last October began Development Testing of the Super Stallion replacement essential to Marine Corps Heavy Lift Helicopter squadrons. With the CH-46E Sea Knight formally retired in August 2015, the MV-22B Osprey tilt rotor dramatically increased the reach and speed of Marine Medium Lift squadrons. Multi-sensor MH-60R Seahawks in Helicopter Maritime Strike squadrons can now spot periscopes in crowded littoral waters and will integrate new weapons to counter swarming boat threats. Even without the intense operational demands of Afghanistan and Iraq, rotary-wing programs of record (PoR) continue to inject new technology into the fleet. They also position the Navy to share in a joint-service Future Vertical Lift (FVL) solution or some other next-generation rotorcraft.

The Navy expects its Seahawks and Knight Hawks to keep flying until around 2040. New UH-1Ys and AH-1Zs filling Marine Light Attack Helicopter squadrons (HMLAs) have 10,000-hour airframes good for about 30 years in service, and their digital avionics have processing power and throughput to grow. However, even the newest naval helicopters are limited by conventional rotors, drivetrains, and flight controls. The Army-led FVL initiative aims at faster, longer-range rotorcraft to replace helicopters starting with today’s UH-60 Black Hawk. Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstrators will fly advanced tilt-rotor and compound helicopter concepts next year to provide science and technology for FVL choices.

The 30,000-pound JMR demonstrators are nevertheless sized to an Army Mission Performance Specification. A notional Navy FVL derivative will have to fold and fit destroyer hangars. The Navy continues to support FVL, with NAVAIR leading development of common mission systems for the joint program. Service Life Assessment Programs for the MH-60R/S airframe will meanwhile enable air warfare leadership in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N98) to make an informed decision on when to embrace FVL or pursue some other development path. Until more is known about the benefits and costs of next-generation rotorcraft, NAVAIR continues to manage programs of record based on state-of-the-art technology.


Vipers and Venoms

The Marine Corps launched the H-1 Upgrade program in 1996 to improve the performance and maximize the commonality of its Bell attack and utility helicopters. With four-bladed composite rotors, totally new structures and dynamics, and integrated digital avionics, today’s UH-1Y Venom utility and AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters are the latest versions of Huey and Cobra long deployed with the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). Rule-of-thumb comparisons credit the UH-1Y Venom with twice the range and twice the payload of the UH-1N Twin Huey it replaced. The AH-1Z Viper offers twice the range or twice the payload of the two-bladed AH-1W. Both new helicopters dramatically enhance performance at high density altitudes and give the Marine Corps modern targeting sensors and a measure of digital connectivity with ground and sea units.

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A sailor directs an AH-1Z Viper helicopter off the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4). The Viper and Venom have 85 percent parts commonality. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jesse Monford

HMLAs ashore mix 15 AH-1Zs and 12 UH-1Ys. At sea with the MAGTF, the Marines rely on the 85 percent parts commonality between the two aircraft to save space and manpower. The UH-1Y achieved initial operational capability (I0C) in 2008 and was joined by the AH-1Z in 2011. By early 2016, the Marines had received 126 of 160 UH-1Ys and 46 of 189 AH-1Zs in the current program of record. With the UH-1Y delivered first to replace the aged Twin Huey, AH-1Z production now stretches to 2022. NAVAIR will also manage the Foreign Military Sale of 15 AH-1Zs to Pakistan, the first international sale of the Viper.

The Northrop Grumman integrated avionics system common to both helicopters manages crew workload and enhances situational awareness. The Marines want all their aircraft digitally connected to both their assault ships and the MAGTF ashore. H-1 interoperability plans call for full-motion video capability introduced this year and a next-generation multi-waveform radio – the Software Reprogrammable Payload (SRP) – around fiscal year 2021. The Marine Corps also expects both aircraft to receive integrated Aircraft Survivability Equipment (ASE) and advanced threat, missile, and laser warning systems. The UH-1Y and AH-1Z will ultimately share a common solution to brownout landings and other degraded visual environment (DVE) hazards. Common weapons already include the laser-designated rockets of the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS). The AH-1Z today uses the laser-seeking Hellfire missile and should achieve initial operational capability with the longer-range, multi-seeker Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM) in 2019.



The Bell Boeing MV-22B is now the medium-lift platform of the Marine Corps and within the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Aviation Combat Element carries rifle platoons and cargo from assault ships to landing zones ashore. The fast, long-ranged tilt rotor has proven itself a truly transformational platform: With three air refuelings, MV-22Bs of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron VMM-265 flew 4,700 miles from Okinawa, Japan, to Brisbane, Australia, in 2014. The Marines are more than 70 percent through plans to fill 18 active-duty and two Reserve squadrons, each with 12 aircraft, plus a fleet replacement training squadron allocated 20 MV-22s. Marine Ospreys are due for integrated aircraft survivability equipment and enhanced networking capabilities. The V-22 Aerial Refueling System (VARS) brings the MAGTF tanker capability in mid-fiscal year 2018. The Marines fired a Griffin missile from an MV-22 last March and continue to study all-axis weapons for the Osprey. A major MV-22 upgrade expected around 2035 is supposed to draw on FVL and other emerging technologies.

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A Marine MV-22B lands aboard the carrier USS George H. W. Bush during preliminary tests for the U.S. Navy CMV-22B in the Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) role.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter

The MV-22B achieved IOC in June 2007. By early 2016, the Marines had 254 of 360 tilt rotors in the joint-service program of record. The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command meanwhile had 48 of 52 CV-22Bs planned. Forty-four of 48 CMV-22B tilt rotors long planned for the Navy have been funded to revitalize Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) capability. The tilt rotor carries up to 20,000 pounds of cargo internally or 15,000 pounds externally and offers the Navy different ways of doing both COD and Vertical On-board Delivery (VOD) missions. Where today’s fixed-wing COD Greyhound requires aircraft carriers steam into winds for launch and recovery, a tilt rotor from a distant shore base may land vertically on a carrier in transit or between deck cycles and use a deck otherwise locked with parked aircraft. The tilt rotor also offers a fast, long-range replacement for the big MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters now used for shore-based VOD. Production of Navy CMV-22Bs with extra fuel tanks begins in 2018 for deliveries in 2020. NAVAIR will also manage V-22 Foreign Military Sales aircraft – Japan has signed on as the first international Osprey customer.


Fire Scouts

Manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) promises to extend the reach, endurance, and utility of Navy and Marine Corps aviation. In 2014, Navy Squadron HSM-35 became the first composite expeditionary helicopter squadron to deploy the MQ-8B Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff Unmanned Air Vehicle (VTUAV) aboard ship alongside the manned, multi-sensor MH-60R Seahawk. The Northrop Grumman Fire Scout Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) includes the VTUAV, air vehicle operator and mission payload operator stations, a Tactical Common Data Link, Unmanned Common Automatic Recovery System, deck landing system, and related equipment. Experience with the MQ-8B gave the system an MQ-8C Endurance Upgrade that trades the 3,300-pound Sikorsky-Schweizer 333 helicopter for the 6,000-pound Bell 407, with more than twice the endurance and nearly three times the payload.

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The MQ-8C Fire Scout Endurance Upgrade is shown here aboard USS Jason Dunham in 2014 and is undergoing Initial Operational Test and Evaluation in 2016. Northrop Grumman photo

The MQ-8C program of record now calls for 40 air vehicles, including 38 operational and two test assets. An operational assessment at Point Mugu, California, last fall validated the performance, endurance, and reliability of the MQ-8C. Testing will continue in 2016 with the development of shipboard launch and recovery envelopes for the bigger helicopter on the littoral combat ship (LCS – now redesignated as fast frigate). The MQ-8B UAS is currently deployed on the USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) and near work-ups on the USS Coronado (LCS 4). The Fire Scout system is designed to operate from any air-capable ship, and changes in the LCS program and their impact on VTUAV production are still being evaluated by the Navy. Current plans hold MQ-8C production at two aircraft per year until the PoR is complete.

Separate from the Navy’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) Fire Scout, the Marine Corps cargo resupply with unmanned aircraft systems (CRUAS) demonstration used the Kaman Aerospace Corporation-Lockheed Martin K-MAX® helicopters in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014. The two CRUAS demonstrators will go to Operational Test & Evaluation Squadron VMX-22 this year to develop a MAGTF Unmanned Expeditionary Capabilities Initial Capabilities Document that may define some future cargo UAS.


Knight Hawks

The last MH-60S off the Sikorsky production line completed a run of 275 Knight Hawks. The first production block entered the fleet in 2002 to replace the CH-46E Sea Knight for vertical replenishment (Vertrep), sling-lifting cargo pallets from supply ships to surface combatants. However, the MH-60S with its digital cockpit and databussed avionics architecture subsequently integrated airborne mine countermeasures (AMCM) and armed helicopter capabilities. (The Knight Hawk also was used as an air ambulance in Kuwait from 2004 to 2012.) The MH-60S with the AN/AAS-44C(V) Multi-spectral Targeting System (MTS) and weapons will also assume the role of today’s HH-60H Strike Rescue/Special Warfare Support helicopter on a schedule to be determined.

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An MH-60S assigned to the Golden Falcons of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 12 takes off from the flight deck of the forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) after refueling during Keen Sword 17 (KS17). U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham

Whatever the mission, the Lockheed Martin Common Cockpit shared by the MH-60S and MH-60R interfaces helicopter crews with their systems. The -60 Sierra AMCM suite now includes the ASQ-235 Airborne Mine Neutralization System and AES-1 Airborne Laser Mine Detection Set operated via a removable cabin console. The U.S. Navy has completed the AMCM technical evaluation and trained a testing cadre at Squadron VX-1 for initial operational test and evaluation. The 23,000-pound MH-60S will not tow the AQS-20 sonar or Mk 105 magnetic influence sled used by the 70,000-pound MH-53E. “Sundown” for the big Sea Dragon in 2025 corresponds with planned operational capability of the littoral combat ship mine countermeasures mission package, including the Unmanned Influence Sweep System.

In the armed helo role, the Knight Hawk with its laser-designating MTS has been integrated with the Hellfire missile. Kits now add APKWS rockets and forward-firing M197 20 mm cannon. Other systems and structural enhancements are in the works, and the Navy expects an MH-60S Service Life Assessment Program (SLAP) around 2017 to stretch the life of the -60 Sierra.



While the versatile MH-60S puts new capabilities on any aviation-capable ship, the sophisticated MH-60R replaces both the SH-60B Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS III) helicopter on small combatants and the SH-60F inner-zone anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter on aircraft carriers. Carrier strike groups typically mix 11 MH-60 Romeos and eight -60 Sierras on the carrier and deploy helicopter detachments to smaller ships as needed. The Romeo Seahawk made its first operational deployment with HSM-71 aboard USS Stennis in 2009, and by early 2016, the Navy had 214 of 280 MH-60Rs in the PoR. The SH-60B and SH-60F will retire this year, and MH-60R production for the U.S. Navy will wrap up in 2018. NAVAIR is managing the first MH-60R Foreign Military Sales for Australia and Denmark.

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An MH-60R Seahawk helicopter from the Battle Cats of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 73 approaches to land on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Philip Wagner Jr.

The multimission Romeo integrates sensors far more capable than those of the Bravo- and Foxtrot-model Seahawks. The Navy acknowledges the AQS-22 Airborne Low Frequency Sonar (ALFS) of the MH-60R detects submarine threats at three to seven times the range possible with legacy dipping sonar. The latest APS-153 multimode radar follows 10 times the number of automatic target tracks processed by the SH-60B and provides automatic radar periscope detection and discrimination. The ALQ-210 Electronic Support Measures (ESM) on the MH-60R have 10 times the geo-locating accuracy of the ESM on the Bravo. The Ku-band datalink of the Romeo can now stream video as well as tactical plots to ships and other aircraft. Significantly, where the SH-60B was dependent on the LAMPS III ship to process sonobuoy returns and ESM signatures, the Romeo has on-board processing power for more autonomous operations.

The MTS electro-optical gimbal shared by the MH-60R and MH-60S has been integrated with Hellfire missiles, but the radar-guided Longbow Hellfire missile promises the Romeo a long-range fire-and-forget weapon. Like the MH-60S, the MH-60R is being armed to counter swarms of fast attack boats. APKWS rockets achieved early operational capability in 2015. The MH-60R is scheduled for its own SLAP to suggest ways to extend the life of the airframe, and pre-planned product improvements include connectivity upgrades for the joint-service battlespace.


King Stallions

What started as a low-risk evolution of the CH-53E now in Marine Heavy Lift Helicopter (HMH) squadrons is today a revolutionary integration of 7,500 shaft horsepower engines, high-lift rotors, powerful split-torque transmission, composite structures, digital avionics, and fly-by-wire flight controls. The Sikorsky CH-53K heavy lift replacement helicopter made its first flight in October 2015, and four Engineering Development Model (EDM) aircraft are to log more than 2,000 test hours over the next two-and-a-half years. The 88,000-pound King Stallion fits the same deck footprint as today’s heavy lifter but with three T408 engines will haul 27,000 pounds of sling cargo more than 110 nautical miles to high-and-hot landing zones, three times the payload/range performance of the CH-53E.


A Sikorsky CH-53K during a test flight. Marine Corps plans call for 200 of the big King Stallions, which have three times the range/payload performance of the CH-53E. Lockheed Martin photo

A CH-53K full-rate production decision is due in the second quarter of FY 2017. Marine Corps plans call for 200 CH-53Ks to fill eight active-duty squadrons, one fleet replacement squadron, two Reserve component squadrons, and test units. CH-53K initial operational capability is scheduled for FY 2019 and full operational capability with the last active unit equipped in FY 2029. Delivery of attrition Reserve aircraft concludes in FY 2031. The Navy has no plans to procure an airborne mine countermeasures variant of the CH-53K to replace the MH-53E, but Germany and Israel are prospects for Foreign Military Sales.

Until the King Stallion takes its place in the MAGTF, the Marines have 147 E-model Super Stallions scheduled to remain in the fleet until 2032. Sustainment plans give the CH-53E a T64-GE-419 engine upgrade, integrated survivability equipment, and the SRP radio plus LINK 16 connectivity.


Presidential Helicopters

Pioneering Marine Corps test squadron HMX-1 at Quantico, Virginia, now makes transporting the chief executive its primary mission. It continues to fly 11 1974-vintage VH-3Ds and eight 1989-era VH-60Ns awaiting a new presidential helicopter. The coming Sikorsky VH-92A integrates the civil-certified S-92A helicopter with a government-defined mission system and incorporates electromagnetic hardening, an enhanced environmental control system, and fuel jettison provisions. Development testing is limited to the differences between the S-92A and VH-92A for FAA airworthiness certification and validation of required performance.

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NAVAIR is working to integrate the FAA-certified S-92 aircraft with a mature mission communications system and an executive interior to ensure an affordable presidential helicopter program. Sikorsky image

Sikorsky has delivered two EDM aircraft to be instrumented for contractor testing and government-led integrated testing including a VH-92 operational assessment. Four system demonstration test articles used for integrated testing and initial operational test and evaluation ultimately transition to operational use.

Twenty-one VH-92A production helicopters will modernize the presidential fleet from FY 2019 to FY 2023. The VH-92A should assume the HMX-1 operational mission beginning in the fourth quarter of FY 2020 and achieve full operational capability by the fourth quarter of FY 2022. To bridge the gap until the new presidential fleet is operational, both the VH-3D Sea King and VH-60N White Hawk are receiving cockpit, cabin, and dynamic improvements including a Wide Band Line of Sight secure strategic communications system.


Training in Transition

Still to be modernized is the Navy training helicopter fleet. About 117 Bell TH-57 Sea Rangers remain the primary and advanced trainers for U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aviators, and for those of foreign militaries. Today’s TH-57Bs and -Cs were bought from 1981 to 1985 and are the last Navy airframes without digital cockpits. A digital TH-57D was cancelled in 2012 due to technical and cost issues. Funding was re-aligned to manage Sea Ranger obsolescence and keep the training platform viable for the near future. The Navy is analyzing industry input for advanced helicopter training options.


A TH-57 Sea Ranger helicopter taxis down the flight line preparing for a routine training flight at Naval Air Station Whiting Field. U.S. Navy photo by Alan Warner

In addition to digital cockpit upgrades, concerns about airframe fatigue and the costs to repair and replace limited parts underscore the need for a replacement airframe. The Navy will continue to work with industry to examine cost-effective alternatives to train future rotary-wing naval aviators.



As an aerospace and defense writer for more than 30 years, Frank has written in-depth...