The US Navy is re-evaluating plans to slim down its helicopter inventory to just two types as the result of concerns that the fleet will lose its heavylift vertical onboard delivery (VOD) capability with the eventual retirement of the Sikorsky MH-53E Sea Dragon.

Under the US Navy's helicopter master plan, the MH-53Es are due to be replaced in the VOD and airborne mine countermeasures (AMCM) roles by the smaller Sikorsky CH-60S. "This plan may be rewritten to address the shortfall in heavylift, this is something we need to look at," says Capt Tom Barns, USN logistics/AMCM/ SAR requirements officer.

The navy intends to commission an external firm of consultants to conduct an analysis of alternatives and make recommendations. Options to be reviewed include:

• retiring the MH-53Es and making do with the reduced capabilities of the CH-60S;

• a service life extension (SLEP) for the MH-53E VOD machines;

• Procuring a VOD version of the Bell/Boeing V-22 tiltrotor;

• Buying or leasing a new helicopter type such as the EHI Industries EH101or Sikorsky S-92.

The nine VOD helicopters are operated by HC-4 from Signoella, Italy, and are primarily tasked with supporting USN aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, moving shipments too large or heavy for the Northrop Grumman C-2 Greyhound's 4,540kg (10,000lb) payload limit. Over short distances, the MH-53E can lift up to 16,330kg, or eight pallets, compared to the CH-60S' maximum of 4,536kg or two pallets.

"We could be hurting ourselves if we didn't have any organic heavylift capability," cautions Barns. Planning calls for HC-4 to retire its aircraft in 2009 and the earliest the navy could fund a SLEP or replacement would be in fiscal year 2004. Irrespective of the VOD decision, the 35 support-intensive MH-53E AMCMs will be replaced by modified CH-60S in 2005. The navy plans for 66 of its 218 CH-60S to be equipped for AMCM.

Source: Flight International