AVALON: Team Romeo mounts tour-de-force

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Australia's decision on a new naval combat helicopter could come by the middle of this year, with a Lockheed Martin-led team mounting a major effort at Australia's Avalon air show.

The two contenders in the 24-helicopter Air 9000 competition are the NH Industries NH90 and the Sikorsky MH-60R offered by Team Romeo, which in addition to Lockheed and Sikorsky includes CAE, General Electric and Raytheon.

Officials from both camps say a decision is likely by the middle of this year. The winner will replace the Royal Australian Navy's 16 Sikorsky S-70B Seahawks, which have served for 20 years.

Team Romeo mounted a substantial campaign at Avalon, featuring a dedicated chalet. In addition, the USS Shoup, a US Navy destroyer returning from a deployment off the Horn of Africa, visited Melbourne for the event, displaying and making its MH-60R available for discussion (below), with air crew also providing briefings. The USN has now taken delivery of 86 of 300 MH-60Rs since the type's introduction in 2006.

© Will Horton/Flightglobal

Although the MH-60R resembles the S-70B, it provides substantial upgrades in avionics and sensors. A key sensor is the AQS-22 airborne low-frequency sonar. The aircraft also can carry torpedoes, anti-ship missiles and machine guns.

The marketing efforts on behalf of the NH90, by contrast, were more subdued, amounting to a briefing in the chalet of Eurocopter, a shareholder in NH Industries along with AgustaWestland and Fokker.

A claimed key advantage of the NH90 is its large size and cabin doors on both sides of the fuselage, compared with just one door for the MH-60R. In addition, the NH90 can carry 14 passengers without requiring the removal of its mission package, while the MH-60R has a far smaller cabin.

However, the MH-60R is a mature platform that can probably reach Australian forces sooner. If chosen, it could achieve its initial operating capability with the service by 2013, says one industry source. The aircraft is also compatible with the support infrastructure that has grown up around Australia's fleet of army UH-60 Black Hawks and navy S-70Bs.

Another challenge facing the NH90 could be the issues Australia is having with the introduction of the MRH90 transport helicopter variant. Australia ordered 46 MRH90s to replace army Black Hawks and the navy's Westland Sea Kings. Canberra has so far accepted 13 MRH90s, which are being used for testing and initial crew training.

Deliveries of more MRH90s are running behind schedule, with the maritime version delayed by 12 months and the army's by 18 months, says Australia's Department of Defence. The acquisition is undergoing a major review this month.