One year ago, four of Sweden’s new utility helicopters were loaded into a pair of Boeing C-17 transports and flown to Afghanistan, where they would be called upon to satisfy an urgent requirement for medical evacuation aircraft.
The rotorcraft in question were not the nation’s long-delayed NH Industries NH90s, but Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawks, which had been acquired in record time through the US government’s Foreign Military Sales mechanism.
In mid-2011 – a full 10 years after signing a production deal for 18 NH90s – Stockholm tackled a looming shortfall in its ability to extract personnel wounded while serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. It had recently deployed several of its Airbus Helicopters AS332 Super Pumas, but these lacked some of the key equipment needed to perform the critical mission.
Already years behind the contractual delivery schedule and several more away from gaining operational capability, Sweden’s NH90 tactical transport helicopters were ruled out, leaving a further acquisition as the nation’s only option.
Swedish Armed Forces Helicopter Wing
Having learned from its experience with ordering a unique, high-cabin configuration of the European rotorcraft in both the troop transport and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) variants, the Swedish military opted to buy 15 UH-60Ms in exactly the same standard as that being produced for the US Army. An initial 38 pilots and 40 technicians from its armed forces helicopter wing also underwent identical training to their counterparts in Ft Rucker, Alabama and Ft Eustis, Virginia, to ease the type’s introduction.
Sweden’s first Black Hawks were delivered in December 2011 under the accelerated procurement, with the first examples officially handed over to 2 Sqn at Malmen air base near Linköping the following month. An intensive period of pre-deployment testing and training then started, with the aircraft required to assume medical evacuation duties from the deployed Super Pumas on 1 April 2013.
The four aircraft arrived at Camp Marmal, adjacent to Mazar-e-Sharif air base in Kunduz province, in March last year – the same month that Sweden received its final Black Hawks.
Initial operational capability was declared on schedule in April 2013, enabling crews to perform daytime-only missions, followed the next month by full operational capability and the ability to also fly at night.
When standing duty, the Swedish unit is required to have two aircraft ready to lift off within 15min of a medical emergency being declared.
One Black Hawk is configured as a medical platform, with its two pilots and one rear crew member/gunner accompanied by a second gunner, and a civilian doctor and nurse capable of tending to up to two patients on stretchers. A second aircraft operates as an armed escort, while a third is held at readiness as a spare.
Unlike the Super Puma unit they replaced, Sweden’s Black Hawk crews are able to fly so-called forward medical evacuation missions, which involve collecting casualties directly from the point of injury. Its AS332s had performed only tactical recoveries – lifting wounded personnel from forward medical facilities to a larger base.
Around 15 medical evacuation missions had been performed by the Black Hawks mid-March 2014, according to Lt Col Lars Eklind, the commanding officer of the wing’s 2nd Helicopter Detachment. These included responding to two battle-related injuries and others of a non-combat nature, for example road accidents and falls.
Three of six prepared flightcrews and around 35 support personnel are in Afghanistan at any one time, with each completing up to an eight-week detachment.
The bulk of the crews’ activities have been linked to training flights, however, with an original maximum of 20h per week having been reduced to 15h in January. “We use them all,” says Eklind, with pilots having gained experience in flying under “brownout” conditions, and over terrain with few visual references.
“We managed to keep our time to within the 15min [take-off requirement], even at night. We trained a lot,” says Eklind. “All of this together has given us a lot of experience. In general, we are preparing for missions like this – the kind of mission we’ll probably be coming back to somewhere in the world."
Swedish UH-60Ms accumulated 700 flight hours in theatre last year, with Helicopter Battalion head Col Ulf Landgren expecting this to increase to around 1,100h before the aircraft are withdrawn in mid-May, as Afghan National Security Forces take full control. “The Black Hawk has performed extremely well,” he says.
With wider crew training continuing in Malmen, supported by the helicopter wing’s trainer-role AgustaWestland AW109s, post-Afghanistan tasks have already been identified for the Black Hawks.
Three or four aircraft will be assigned to the Nordic Battle Group structure for a six-month period of availability starting on 1 January 2015. These will be flown in a utility transport role only, with Finland to meet medical evacuation needs with its NH90s. If called upon, the Swedish rotorcraft will be capable of flying for a maximum of 6h per day, to a limit of 720h during an operation.
Other peacetime tasks, meanwhile, will involve training with special police units for activities such as national infrastructure protection.
The pace of the UH-60M’s acquisition and introduction is in marked contrast to the helicopter wing’s delayed NH90s. Planned to have entered use as a mix of 13 tactical transports and five ASW-role aircraft, the fleet was originally scheduled to be delivered from 2003, and to achieve full operational capability in 2008. A first batch of personnel started training to fly the type in France in 2006-2007.
“There have been a lot of delays, and we are still working with delays,” says Lt Col Stefan Stragnefeldt, Wing Commander Flying at the helicopter wing. Standing alongside the first of Sweden’s D-model configuration aircraft in a spacious hangar at Malmen, he adds: “Right now we are learning to fly and handle this new aircraft, and it’s very good.”
Also referred to as an International Mission (IM) variant, aircraft 51 has been involved in an operational evaluation activity performed by the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration’s (FMV) tactical evaluation unit since arriving at the site in December 2013. It is expected to leave Malmen “before summer”, Stragnefeldt says, with all of Sweden’s remaining NH90s to be delivered directly to operational units in Luleå and Ronneby.
Unlike a previous four tactical transports delivered to Sweden in a basic training configuration since 2011, the IM-standard helicopter can be flown under instrument flight rule conditions, enabling it to be operated in cloud, and also features multiple other enhancements. These include a Saab-provided tactical mission system with a digital moving map, Honeywell Primus weather radar and a nose-mounted electro-optical/infrared sensor with laser rangefinder.
Additional mission equipment includes a twin electric hoist for use during search and rescue (SAR) missions, armoured protection for its two pilots and a functioning cargo hook and rear ramp; the latter was locked shut with previous examples. A previous “enhanced basic”, or C-model aircraft was rejected by Sweden after an initial example was delivered in 2011. The helicopter – which will be upgraded to the final configuration later in the programme – is being maintained in a flight-worthy condition at Malmen, but is used solely to support ground-based training.
Originally intended to be capable of performing the mission in Afghanistan, the IM will also later receive additional ballistic-protective matting and a roller option for its cabin, a fast-roping kit and a full suite of countermeasures and door-mounted 7.62mm machine guns for self-protection.
“We will get a lot of equipment, but we really don’t know when it will arrive,” says Stragnefeldt.
But the IM model is itself only another interim capability, as Sweden’s full fleet of transport/SAR assets and ASW helicopters will be brought to the future E and F standards, respectively.
Current expectations are that the models will be fully operational “in the period beyond 2017”, Stragnefeldt says. "It’s difficult to say exactly – the plans are constantly moving,” he says.
A decision on the final fleet mix has yet to be reached, although it is known that nine E-model transports will be based at Ronneby in southern Sweden. The remainder will be positioned at Luleå in the north, with five in the ASW configuration and Stockholm retaining an option to bring the other four to the same standard. It has already ordered mission equipment such as dipping sonars for the confirmed anti-submarine assets, but no torpedoes or other weapons.
Swedish Armed Forces Helicopter Wing
Of the four basic NH90s used to support training since 2011, three are operated by the air force’s 3 Sqn from Ronneby, and the other assigned to its 1 Sqn in Luleå. These aircraft logged a combined 800 flying hours in 2013, with current utilisation across the fleet and the lead IM running at 25h per month per aircraft, for an annual 300h per airframe.
Sweden’s next D-version is scheduled to be handed over to the FMV at Airbus Helicopters’ Donauwörth site in Germany in early April, and will be delivered to Ronneby post-acceptance.
New NH90 crews are now being trained, with some personnel drawn from Sweden’s reduced Super Puma fleet. Three have been retired from use since handing over the medical evacuation task to the Black Hawks in Afghanistan last year, reducing the helicopter wing’s inventory of the type to six.
Landgren says discussions are now under way to establish when the remaining Super Pumas will be decommissioned. This could occur in 2015 or 2016, he says, but notes that as “there is no limitation on the aircraft”, these could fly on “even longer maybe” if required to do so.
“The NH90 is performing really well, since we came over the disruptions two or three years ago,” Landgren tells Flight International. “We have trained our technicians – now we have to train the pilots. The challenge is to have experienced pilots and also younger ones, so you get a good mix.”
Stragnefeldt notes that the current shortage of airframes and the lack of a simulator in Sweden is another issue facing the helicopter wing’s preparations on the new type. “It’s too bad that this programme has delays, but we are happy to have this helicopter. It’s one of the best in the world,” he says.