In mid-2010, Italy began preparing for the first deployment of the NH Industries NH90 tactical transport helicopter (TTH). The effort was led initially by an NH90 task group at the Italian army's experimental aviation centre, and then by the service's 7 Regiment, "Vega".
A helicopter squadron called Task Unit Nemo was established, trained and certificated for the out-of-area mission. This comprises five NH90 TTHs - or UH-90As, to use the Italian defence ministry's designation - and some 45 personnel, including five crews and a team of 15 maintenance operators.
The original plan had been to deploy earlier in 2012, but between 18 August and 23 September the NH90s and unit personnel were flown aboard US Air Force Boeing C-17 strategic transports to Herat, Italy's main operating base in Afghanistan and the site at which the nation leads the Regional Command (RC) West element of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Each helicopter required about two days' work to be returned to flight status. Col Salvatore Annigliato, commander of the Italian army's aviation battalion in Afghanistan, says the first helicopters and personnel immediately began an acclimatisation period until the unit was declared fully operational on 26 September. This milestone was achieved after 90 sorties and 60 flight hours, including about 36h flown in operational conditions, he adds.
Also called Task Force Fenice, the battalion counts among its rotary-wing assets 10 AgustaWestland AW129C Mangusta attack helicopters and six Boeing CH-47C+ Chinook transports. To cope with Afghan theatre requirements, the service decided to deploy the ad hoc interim operational version of the TTH, the NH90 IOC+ Enhanced. This features stable mission software compared with the initial operating capability training version, as well as an almost complete avionics and mission systems suite.
The latter includes alert and de-icing equipment, a full electronic warfare suite and a reduced Selex ES communication package with two multiband VHF/UHF SRT-651/N-S sets and one high-frequency SRT 170/M6 radio equipped with cryptography, to allow for secure communications between air and land operators. However, the aircraft lacks a satellite communication terminal.
Earlier restrictions, including using the rear ramp, landing at an altitude above 6,000ft (1,830m), and flying in snow and icing conditions, have been lifted. Platform protection has also been enhanced, through the addition of ballistic protection and two Oto Melara pintle mounts for Dillon 7.62mm gatling guns.
"Since September 2012, Task Unit Nemo's five NH90s and personnel have flown 300h in more than 400 sorties, without a single mission having to be aborted for technical malfunctions, and assuring all missions assigned by RC West," says Annigliato.
"With two helicopters always available, two on maintenance cycle and one in attrition status, the unit was able to lodge the required 65 flying hours per month until 2012's end. This figure was then elevated to 80h, while aircraft availability allowed the unit to maintain four helicopters operational for limited periods," he adds.
The most-used airframe accumulated 96 flying hours, operating in hot-and-high environmental conditions, with temperatures reaching above 40°C (104°F) during the earlier deployment stage, and conducting day and night missions from elevated forward operating sites such as at Chagcharan (7,850ft elevation) in brown-out conditions. With the arrival of the winter season, NH90s are flying in adverse weather conditions characterised by snow and ice, with temperatures often below -10°C.
"The capabilities being provided by Task Unit Nemo are in line with the operational requirements of Combat Support and Combat Service Support, forward medical evacuation and helicopter sniping in support of ISAF special force command expressed by RC West headquarters," says Annigliato.
Less than one month into the NH90 deployment, the Italian army's aviation battalion led a mixed ISAF and Afghan air assault mission to move an Afghan army battalion from Farah province capital to a forward operating base in Gulistan district - a distance of some 75nm (140km). Operation Grasshoppers made use of 15 helicopters, including two Afghan Mil Mi-17s, four Italian AW129Cs, six Chinooks (two each from Italian, Spanish and US units), two US Army Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and one NH90. Conducted in three phases during three days, the operation involved the movement of 700-plus personnel in more than 20 sorties and six main mixed helicopter formations, totalling about 100 flying hours. "Although mainly used for transportation and forward medevac missions, the single NH90 was employed to provide special forces with helicopter-sniping cover," says Annigliato.
In November, Task Unit Nemo assets participated in Operation Worker Ant, with the NH90 acting as airborne platform for the Joint Tactical Air Control to provide command and control functions and synchronise the aerial fire and intelligence support for ground troops. "Thanks to 'Rover 4' connectivity through onboard communication equipment, this allows up-to-date intelligence coverage and multinational co-ordination," says Annigliato.
The NH90 became the most requested platform for special forces operations, mainly conducted in night and reduced-light conditions with the Thales helmet mounted system and display, Selex ES navigation forward-looking infrared sensor and digital map generator. These enabled a range of missions, including helicopter sniping, thanks to the aircraft's fly-by-wire flight control system, which offers a smooth ride and platform stabilisation, air interdiction vehicle and mission controller capabilities. "The NH90 platform is so far responding well to the theatre's environmental and operational conditions and, in some areas such as propulsion power, exceeding expectations," says Annigliato.
"While operating in hot-and-high conditions, the engines offer at least a 10% increase each in available power compared with the flight manual. The boroscope inspection shows the integral particle separator to be working as requested. The airframe has not so far showed specific issues related to the theatre's flying environment and the wear conditions of rotor blades and powerplant are comparable to other aviation battalion rotary-wing assets."
He adds that issues such as windshield cracks, for which remedies have already been identified, have yet to show in operations; likewise the poor robustness of the cargo compartment floor. Light damage to tyres when landing on stony ground requires attention, he says, but the problem is "expected to be solved soon".
The NH90 maintenance team conducts safety inspections at 50h and 100h intervals in the first two years. The 300h maintenance stop on the first helicopter will be conducted in Italy, with similar activities on other NH90s performed locally. An AgustaWestland field service representative supports the unit at Herat.
Italian army aviation battalion assets are usually deployed at forward operating bases to better support ground troops. Such operational doctrine is not hurting the NH90's availability during the forward deployment, although a maintenance team of two to three operators accompanies the assets in case.
Italian army NH90s are flown in a heavily armed transport configuration, centred on a five-member crew including two pilots, a flight engineer and two gunner operators. Characterised by a stow position limiting the encumbrance in the cargo doors area, each of the two lightweight Oto Melara-sourced guns weighs 220kg (485lb) with a 4,400-round ammunition box. To conduct forward medical evacuation missions, the helicopter can also embark a fully equipped intensive care station for treating the wounded, managed by the Italian army's specialised medical team.
Although capable of carrying 11-12 soldiers in a basic configuration with a three-person crew, the installation of the pintle-mounted guns reduces the transportation capabilities of NH90 IOC+ Enhanced platforms to eight troops.
"In addition to the five-member crew, the standard payload for RC West area operations in summer season is based on six fully equipped soldiers of 130kg each, or around 800kg," says Annigliato.
"During winter season we can carry seven soldiers, while a maximum useful load of eight troops or 1,000kg of internal cargo is imposed by the cabin layout, operational conditions permitting," he adds.
"The latter also required new operational procedures to rapidly exit and board using the helicopter rear ramp, as the forward cabin area is dominated by the two pintle-mounted gun systems." However, he says, "together with ballistic protection, the latter are not limiting at all the emergency egress from the side-sliding doors."
With a Thales electronic warfare suite, including the same company's radar warning receiver, plus Cassidian MILDS II missile launch detector, Selex ES RALM 01/V2 laser warning receiver and MBDA chaff and flare dispensers, Task Unit Nemo's NH90s embody a modular composite ballistic protection kit. Weighting about 260kg, this protects the cargo cabin floor, while the cockpit features armoured seats for the two pilots.
"The avionics are responding well and so far have not shown problems. The digital map generator and the weather radar enhance navigation and ground separation capabilities, while the projected data on the helmet-mounted system and display in 'configuration 3', which offers a tangible improvement with night vision system compared to 'configuration 0', together with the fly-by-wire flight control system modes and the navigation FLIR, provide a significantly better situational awareness during landing operation in brown-out and white-out condition.
"Moreover, the Selex ES mission planning and analysis system significantly reduces crew workload during the mission, tangibly increasing flight safety," adds Annigliato. The icing alert and de-icing system on the aircraft's rotor, engine and horizontal stabiliser have also worked properly in the current winter season, expanding the flight envelope.