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German NH90 NFH “Sea Tiger” Set to Enter the Naval Arena

Demand for a successor of Germany’s 38-year old inventory of 22 AgustaWestland (now Leonardo) SEA LYNX Mk88A helicopters was growing in recent years. With the selection of a successor, Airbus Helicopters’ NH90 NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter), the German Navy will be able to better cope with future roles at sea. The Navy announced on July 31 that it selected the platform, which is already in service with the five NATO partners Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway. Each of the nations opted for a capable platform that allows for integration of varying mission equipment, including sensors and weapons. Vice Admiral Joachim Rühle, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, approved the procurement programme on July 29. The selection of the new naval helicopter, which was outlined in a special document (called “Fähigkeitslücke Funktionale Forderung”) of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the BAAINBw procurement authority since the end of 2018, according to the Navy’s announcement, takes advantage of the experiences gathered by the five NATO partners that received their NFHs since about mid-2010. With the selection of the NFH, it will be possible to easily shift from the legacy Mk88A to a modern successor, sources at BAAINBw noted. According to the MoD, the German NFH will be called “Sea Tiger” and projected as MRFH (Mehrrollenfähiger Fregattenhubschrauber; multirole frigate helicopter). It will be similar to the 27 Caïman Marine helicopters in service with the Marine Nationale since about December 2011. The service declared IOC (Initial Operational Capability) in March 2012. The procurement programme will include 30 helicopters for the German naval air arm (Marineflieger) plus one airframe for a Bundeswehr Technical Centre (WTD) for test and evaluation. Parliamentary approval is expected in 2020.

By adding the required functionalities, the configuration of the Sea Tiger might be on the basis of the NH90 Sea Lion helicopter that is on order to replace existing SEA KING Mk41 helicopters. The Sea Tiger’s fitment should be identical to that operated by France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Their NFH version, which shares about 80% commonality with the TTH variant, underwent minor modifications, including the inclusion of an automatic blade and tail folding system for safe ship operations; a strengthened undercarriage to cope with the stresses of operating from a pitching deck; a corrosion proof frame; a steerable nose-wheel; an automatic floatation devices; and salt-resistant engines and tie-down points. The primary tasks of the future German NFH may include both anti-surface warfare (ASuW) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW), tactical reconnaissance, transport of personnel, equipment and Special Forces units, search-and-rescue (SAR), CasEvac (casualty evacuation), maritime patrol and maritime interdiction (MIO), vertical replenishment (VERTREP), and seabasing/ship-to-objective manoeuvre-air. They will form an integral part of the “System Fregatte”, according to the Navy, with the helicopters operated from Type F124 (Sachsen class) and F125 (Baden-Württemberg class) frigates, as well as the future MKS180 multirole combat ship. These surface ship classes possess sufficient space and equipment for handling up to two helicopters in the category of the NFH. MONCh understands that Type F123 (Brandenburg class) frigates that do not possess such capacities will not operate their own helicopters when the last Mk88A are going out of service.

Due to the proliferation of modern attack submarines, ASW continues to be a key requirement for naval helicopters. In order to deal with the submarine threat, modern high-end naval helicopters like the NH90 NFH Sea Tiger can be equipped with sonobuoys and a dipping sonar (such as Thales’ Folding Light Acoustic System for Helicopters (FLASH) already fitted to French and Norwegian aircraft) or L3 Ocean Systems’ DS-100 Helicopter Long-Range Active Sonar (HELRAS) equipping Dutch helicopters). The manufacturer describes the latter as an “excellent performer in shallow waters against all threats.” On the weapons side, the Sea Tiger should represent a platform that allows integration and carriage of a variety of advanced ASW/ASuW weapons. While Royal Netherlands Navy (RNlN) NFHs carry Raytheon Mk46 torpedoes, the French Caïman Marine can be armed with the Eurotorp MU90 torpedo or the future Anglo-French SEA VENOM anti-ship missile developed by MBDA. The missile is known as Anti-Navire Leger (ANL) in France and was formerly known as the Future Anti-Surface Guided Weapon (Heavy) in the UK. MBDA’s MARTE Mk2/S anti-ship missile was also qualified for the NH90 NFH; it is in service with the Italian Navy.

To accomplish any of these roles, the German Sea Tigers may be configured with: a lightweight, tactical 360 degree radar capable of multiple track-while-scan (TWS) and Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) functionalities in dense electromagnetic environments, under all weather conditions and high sea states; a weather radar with surveillance and search modes integrated with a colour weather radar featuring sea-clutter reduction, Doppler turbulence detection and display range as close as 0.5nm; an EO/IR (electro-optical/infrared) sensor to be mounted in the nose (below the weather radar) featuring an LWIR (long-wave IR) thermal imager, colour TV camera, a narrow field-of-view ‘spotter’ TV camera and a laser target designator; an integrated secure communications suite for both air-to-air and air-to-ground with V/UHF and HF communications systems; an Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system eventually derived from Franco-German cooperation; a navigation suite including GPS, INS (inertial navigation system), Doppler, air data and a digital map generator; Link 11 datalink for generating a comprehensive Recognised Maritime Picture (RMP); searchlights; a winch capable of lifting up to 270kg; an external cargo hook; and fuel tanks for 1,900kg of fuel fitted with crash-resistant, self-sealing cells. The latter were supplied for the Belgian NFHs by Continental based in Aachen, Germany. ASW/ASuW operations will require a comprehensive electronic warfare system (EWS) that may include advanced ESM (Electronic Support Measures) and ECCM (Electronic Counter-Countermeasures System) functionalities, with radar returns correlated with information generated by the helicopter‘s ESM system. The latter can be obtained from Italian manufacturer Elettronica (DETE-90 or ALR-733 family). The Sea Tiger should be configured with an extended avionics system, eventually built around 8-inch x 8-inch colour multifunction liquid crystal displays. The avionics package might well include a helmet-mounted sight and display, offering a 40 degree field of view (FOV). A product in this category is Thales‘ TopOwl helmet-mounted sight and display for helicopters.

In sum, a highly sophisticated naval helicopter like the NH90 NFR Sea Tiger might well be able to fulfill a broad range of tasks, enabling sea control and maritime power projection operations, as well as operations aimed at maintaining good order at sea. Fitted with elaborate sensor suites that enable over the horizon targeting, the Sea Tiger acts as the ‘eyes and ears’ of naval commanders. The Sea Tiger, designed with safety and versatility in mind, might well be able to fulfill the most demanding missions and can operate from a frigate up to Sea State 5. As shown by the NFHs in service with other European NATO countries like the Netherlands and Norway, an Automatic Flight Control (AFC) system, an anti-icing system and the widely envision night-fly capability will allow the future German counterparts to operate in the harshest weather conditions, making them an excellent all-weather helicopter. With the RNlN having operated both MOC (Meaningful Operational Capability) and FOC (Full Operational Capable) NFHs during operations off the coast of Somalia and in the Caribbean, ‘lessons learned with the helicopter show the NFH is much liked for its sensors that are vastly superior when compared to predecessor aircraft such as the legacy Mk88A.

Stefan Nitschke

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