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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.