Australia has formalised its planned acquisition of an additional tranche of the multi-mission helicopters.
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The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has placed a second order for MH-60R Seahawk/Romeo helicopters, requesting an additional 12 platforms via a Foreign Military Sales agreement with the US Navy, tipped to be worth over $2.5 billion.
The US Navy has contracted Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorsky to produce the additional helicopters over the coming years, with delivery expected between mid-2025 and mid-2026.
The deal, which forms part of the Commonwealth government’s Project SEA 9100 Phase 1 (Improved Embarked Logistics Support Helicopter Capability) — is expected to provide the RAN’s Fleet Air Arm with a third Romeo squadron.
The 12 additional helicopters build on the 24 aircraft acquired between 2013 to 2016 and would take the total size of the fleet to 36.
The Fleet Air Arm’s 725 and 816 squadrons — based out of Nowra, NSW — have accumulated more than 30,000 flight hours, deployed from frigates, destroyers and supply ships.
The helicopters have been sustained by Sikorsky Aircraft Australia Limited, also based in Nowra.
“The ‘Romeo’ Seahawk helicopter instills confidence in navies worldwide for its high operational availability in the harsh maritime environment, and for the fully integrated mission systems and sensors that quickly generate a complete picture of the surface and subsurface domains,” Hamid Salim, vice president, Sikorsky Maritime & Mission Systems, said.
“We thank the RAN for showing confidence in the broad mission flexibility of this proven multi-role helicopter.
“Ongoing and planned upgrades to the MH-60R through partnership with the US Navy, RAN, other international partners and industry will ensure the aircraft’s reliability and mission effectiveness against emerging threats for decades to come.”
Rear Admiral Peter Quinn, head of Navy Capability for the Royal Australian Navy, reflected on the Romeo’s capability across a range of warfighting environments.
“Built upon a decade of partnership with the United States Navy and Lockheed Martin, the MH-60R ‘Romeo’ multi-mission helicopter provides the Royal Australian Navy with an unparalleled maritime aviation platform,” he said.
“The versatility of the MH-60R to conduct a wide range of missions combined with the world-class support provided by our partners, was a significant factor in the decision by the RAN to make an additional investment in MH-60R under the SEA 9100 Phase 1 program.”
Captain Todd Evans, US Navy H-60 multi-mission helicopters program manager said this latest order would further strengthen ties between Australian and US forces.
“This effort continues the longstanding partnership between the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Navy,” he said.
Lockheed Martin’s receipt of the second order comes less than a year after the US State Department approved the initial purchase request from the Commonwealth government.
This was followed up by a public commitment from former prime minister Scott Morrison ahead of the federal election in May 2022.
The RAN Romeo helicopters provide an anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare capability, while also supporting the execution of vertical replenishment, search and rescue, and communications relay missions.
The platforms are equipped with an advanced combat systems designed to employ Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and the Mark 54 anti-submarine torpedo.
Some reports have suggested the fleet has expanded in response to operational concerns associated with the Airbus-built MH-90 Taipan fleet, deployed by both Navy and Army.
In June 2021, Defence suspended flying operations of its 47 Taipan aircraft as a “safety precaution” after an issue relating to the “application of the helicopter’s maintenance policy” in the aircraft’s IT support system was identified.
This was the latest in a series of technical incidents associated with the Taipan’s operation.
In 2019, a tail rotor vibration forced the MRH-90 helicopters based at HMAS Albatross to be grounded.
This followed a precautionary landing on HMAS Adelaide from an Army MRH-90, prompting officials to temporary suspend the entire fleet.
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) again listed the MRH program (AIR 9000 Phase 2, 4 and 6) as a “project of concern” in its 2019-20 Defence Major Projects report.
The ANAO stated there remains an “ongoing inability” to meet materiel capability delivery milestones and performance criteria relating to the Taipan’s gun mount, aero-medical evacuation equipment and the Common Mission Management System.
In December, the joint committee of public accounts and audit called on Defence to commission a performance review or independent external audit of the entire helicopter acquisition program in lieu of concerns raised by the ANAO.