Saturday, February 11, 2006

Re-inventing the Sea King

National Defence Headquarters has announced that 5 Sea King CH-124 helicopters will be converted from their anti-submarine warfare role to airborne troop transport aircraft.

Most Canadians go into an immediate tail-spin whenever they hear the name "Sea King". That's understandable considering the years of bad press they have received for serviceability problems. But the press hasn't always been right and they have flogged the Sea Kings without understanding what serviceability means for a shipborne anti-submarine warfare helicopter.

First, look at the role of the current Sea King fleet. They are a ship controlled, free moving air unit designed to act as a flexible, medium-range submarine detection system. They perform a second, but just as important role as a standoff weapons launching system. They rarely operate independently and are under the positive control of the ship from which they launch or another destroyer/frigate in a task unit.

Secondly, examine the conditions under which they operate. They are launched from the very small flight decks of frigates in all weather conditions, day and night. They are subject to salt water which attacks everything in the aircraft, from landing gear to transmission seals. Inspection and maintenance standards are rigid and stringent. The slightest flaw or suspect part will ground a Sea King. The actual mission is also taxing. Sea Kings spend a lot of time in the hover close to the surface of the water and, to be effective, they must maintain their position with absolute precision. For this they have a sophisticated system for automated approach to a stabilized sustained hover. In short they can stay over the precise position ordered by the air controller without driving the pilot nuts. This is equivalent to balancing a basketball on a thin 4 foot stick while keeping the bottom of the stick on one spot on the floor. Then comes the landing. The aircraft has no other place to go, so if the flight deck is rolling, pitching and yawing, it still has to land. To assist, the helicopter drops a line and connects to a traversing device on the deck known as a Beartrap. The helicopter maintains hover and power and is literally wound down into the deck. It is then "trapped" by a set of clamps and held in place. The Royal Canadian Navy developed this system and for what it's worth, for decades the RCN was the only navy landing a large helicopter the size of a Sea King on a frigate. Everyone else thought we were crazy.

Understand that, as bad as the media will make the Sea King out to be, it is still a serviceable aircraft. There is a more significant problem with the fact that it is utilizing outdated avionics. The Sea King can no longer keep up with other allied shipborne air resources and while its maintenance hours appear high, it is only because of its age. Newer aircraft require fewer maintenance hours because of improvements. Canadian navy Sea Kings require more maintenance hours than they did when they were new, but they are not significantly out of line with a military spec helicopter in mid-life. In short, the maintenance hours are lower than they could be if we didn't look after them so well. An analogy would be comparing a well-maintained 1966 Ford Mustang with a new 2006 Ford Mustang. The older car will always require more maintenance because of the older technology.

There are two variants of Sea King in the Canadian air inventory. The CH124A is equipped with a dipping active sonar and the ability to localize a submarine. It hovers and listens passively for a submarine or it can start pinging, (something usually done in the seconds before it attacks). Once it has located a submarine it launches a MK46 active sonar homing torpedo, and then it backs away. The CH124B looks the same but has different capabilities. It has no dipping sonar and no active capability. It launches several listening buoys (sonobuoys) and an onboard operator analyses the data sent by the buoys. Both variants have a problem in that their outdated systems require detection, analysis, tactical decision making and reporting by the aircrew. Newer naval helicopters transmit all data to the ship where it is integrated into a much better picture of the battlescape. Of the two variants, the CH124B is now the least useful and its inclusion in NATO and Allied task groups does not provide the speed and accuracy in producing underwater information necessary to protect the force. It is this variant which is being converted to a troop transport role.

While the navy will feel the effect of fewer ASW helicopters, the changing nature of warfare means that the conversion of some shipborne helicopters is not out of keeping with current naval operations. The quick reaction force up to now has relied on a "tossed-together" group using ASW Sea Kings which, due to the weight of their built-in ASW systems, could not transport sufficient numbers of troops for a safe and effective ground assault. By removing the ASW gear and modifying the internal layout, they will adequately fulfill a necessary role.

For what it's worth, Canada's Sea Kings have undergone at least two major refits in their lifetime. The latest was a rip-down, right to the last rivet, and a complete rebuild. Many navies still operate the Sea King in one form or another, including the Chileans who have perfected the art of launching Exocet anti-ship missiles from a hovering helicopter. Both the US navy and the British Royal Navy have converted their ASW Sea King fleets, which are roughly the same age as Canada's, to troop transport and utility helicopters (although the RN still uses a Sea King in the ASW role and has some converted for airborne early warning).

While none of this relieves the necessity of having a new shipborne helicopter delivered to the navy quickly, this new employment of the Sea Kings is not wrong.

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