MELBOURNE, Australia — The Royal Australian Navy has managed to integrate the Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk naval helicopter with a range of vessels that were not included in the original plans when Australia decided to acquire the type, according to the deputy commander of the RAN’s Fleet Air Arm.
Speaking to media during a visit at the invitation of simulation provider CAE to the naval base at HMAS Albatross, located in Nowra, south of Australia’s largest city Sydney, Capt. Grant O’Loughlan touted the MH-60R’s capabilities and interoperability with U.S. Navy systems, even as the service retains the autonomy to customize the helicopter for its unique needs.
The additional vessels with which the helo is compatible include the RAN’s support ships and the Canberra-class landing helicopter docks used for amphibious operations. O’Loughlan noted that “the range of missions that this helicopter can undertake is significant.”
The diverse mission sets range from maritime domain awareness, electronic warfare, vertical replenishment, and search and rescue thanks to its extensive onboard suite of networked systems in addition to its primary anti-submarine warfare role.
Australia’s decision to keep the capability of its fleet of MH-60Rs, locally known as the Romeo, close to that of the U.S. Navy’s fleet of helicopters has also helped enhance interoperability between the two navies, with Cmdr. Stan Buckham, the commanding officer of the RAN’s 725 Squadron, telling reporters that helicopters from both navies can go out to sea and work together to carry out a mission using common systems and broadly similar tactics and procedures.
The sustainment model the two navies are using for their respective helicopter fleets are also similar. Australia signed up for 10-year agreement with the U.S. Navy in 2018 to support the whole MH-60R system.
Buckham noted that the RAN can plug into the U.S. Navy’s system and access parts from an American ship if needed.
Nevertheless, Australia still sees the need to maintain some autonomy and customization in how it uses its MH-60Rs. Its acquisition program was structured in such a way to allow it to “get a vote” on what new capabilities are added, and the program is similar to how the country structured some other defense acquisitions, such as the Boeing P-8A Poseidon multimission aircraft and Boeing CH-47F Chinook helicopters.
The RAN’s traditional crewing model has also seen it retain the aviation warfare operator in the cockpit of its MH-60Rs. Working as the mission commander alongside the pilot and the sensor operator in the rear cabin, this is in contrast with the U.S. Navy’s crew model of having two pilots in the cockpit, with the pilot with the higher skills category rating serving as the mission commander.
Training also differs in some aspects between the two services. Australia trains with the local environmental conditions and context in mind, focusing on the waters around Australia and the immediate region with its unique thermal layer and water columns.
Australia has a fleet of 24 MH-60Rs, versus the 500 Seahawks of various models in the U.S. inventory, meaning Australian crews spend more time training in the synthetic training suite provided by CAE.
The RAN operates a fleet of 24 MH-60Rs from Nowra split among two squadrons, with 725 Squadron primarily assigned to training duties while sister unit 816 Squadron handles operational duties. The helicopters were ordered from the United States under the Foreign Military Sales program in 2011 to replace older S-70B Seahawks and were delivered to Australia between 2013 and 2016.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.