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The introduction of a weapon system is always a challenge, even more so if the procurement decisions are not yet dry cloths - as in the case of the Multi Role Frigate Helicopter (MRFH) NH90 Sea Tiger.

On October 1, 2021, the 3rd Flying Squadron of Naval Aviation Squadron 5 in Nordholz will celebrate a special birthday: It will be able to look back on 40 years of boarding operations by frigates of the German Navy and as much as memories of embarkation are scattered around the world, so much have they been shaped by only one flight type, the Sea Lynx Mk88 and its modified version of the Mk88A. Since it will be the last round birthday of the 3rd flying season with this weapon system, the discussions will certainly also revolve around the successor, the Multi Role Frigate Helicopter (MRFH) NH 90 Sea Tiger. The new weapon system is already expected with a mixture of anticipation, curiosity and respect in the deployment squadron.

On-board helicopter - the Swiss pocket knife of the frigates since 1981

In order to understand the peculiarity of on-board flight operations, one has to consider the breadth of the range of tasks that previously had to be covered by the Lynx. The orders on board range from banal personnel and material transport (lovingly: "taxi flights") to the drop-off of boarding teams on unknown dhows in the Horn of Africa and to use as a remote sensor and weapon carrier of a tactical ship association in the North Atlantic. An on-board helicopter must be able to depict what can be done on land in a variety of weapon systems.

The decision to choose the NH90 as an on-board helicopter has been made - here a Sea Lion NH90 NTH; it is now urgent to initiate procurement

The focus is on people

So far, a fixed crew constellation consisting of two helicopter driver officers and a helicopter location master had to serve for all of these tasks, including the most challenging task: submarine hunting in high-intensity combat.

Be it the pilot in command, who must take the helicopter to the nearest sonar listening station as quickly as possible and stop under all circumstances, or the helicopter location master who tries to be able to provide reliable information about the underwater situation in the shortest possible time. The second helicopter pilot, as the Tactical Coordinator (TacCo (light)) from the left seat past the flight control, must bring the processed information from the helicopter location master together with the radar image and the image of the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR). Even today, both pictures can only be selected alternately on a screen that uses the full color range "green-dark green-black". When the TacCo has this situation picture in its head, it must verbally transmit it to the association in the absence of a tactical data link. The only exceptions are the transitions into and from the hover flight, where he has to give priority to supporting the pilot in control, since transmission and engine control and monitoring have not been further developed since 1981.

An dieser Stelle wird bereits deutlich, wie sehr die technologische Weiterentwicklung und damit die neuen Einsatzmöglichkeiten des NH 90 die Rolle der Operateure verändern werden. Aufgrund der hohen Systemintegration und -automation, die der MRFH anbietet, werden die Piloten bei der reinen Durchführung des Streckenfluges und der Überwachung der flugtechnischen Systeme entlastet. Gleichzeitig steigt die taktische Datenmenge, die der NH 90 zur Verfügung stellt, exponentiell. Stellte die Lynx ein Radarlagebild, ein FLIR-Bild und je nach Auftrag ein Sonarbild oder Daten des stand-alone AIS-Rechners (AIS – Automatic Identification System, ein System automatischer Identifizierung von Schiffen) vor den Knien des Hubschrauberortungsmeisters zur Verfügung, werden im NH-90 Daten der Laser-Entfernungsmessung, einer bildgebenden Option des Radars und der ESM-Anlage (ESM – Electronic Support Measures – elektronische Unterstütungsmaßnahmen. Dabei geht es um das Erfassen und Auswerten elektromagnetischer Ausstrahlungen) zur Verfügung gestellt. Wobei zudem die Leistung der einzelnen Sensoren deutlich gesteigert ist – gemessen am Vorgänger. Der Zugewinn an Quantität und Qualität der Daten wird aus Sicht der 3. Staffel so hoch sein, dass die Integration in einem Missionssystem nicht ausreichen wird, um die Arbeitslast der Operateure zu senken. Folglich ist es unabdingbar, die Aufbereitung der Daten deutlicher von der darauf basierenden Entscheidungsfindung zu trennen. Im Klartext: Aus unserer Sicht müssen zwei hauptamtliche Sensor-Operateure in der Kabine die gelieferten Rohdaten auswerten und in das Missionssystem einspeisen. Der TacCo würde dann die externe Lage mit der eigenen übereinander bringen, um den Kopf frei zu haben für seine Entscheidungsfindung. Da aber auch im NH90 die Arbeitsplätze der Besatzung begrenzt sein werden, erhöht dies wiederum die Arbeitslast auf den fliegenden Piloten. Wegen der unterschiedlichen Einsatzprofile wird es unerlässlich, ein flexibles Besatzungskonzept zu entwickeln, bei dem sowohl eine Single-Pilot Flugdurchführung denkbar ist als auch ein Einsatz mit zwei Piloten. Diese Überlegungen scheinen sich jedoch noch nicht überall durchgesetzt zu haben.

The core business - underground hunting

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The Navy will fly the NH90 in the version transport helicopter and on-board helicopter; a day after the start of flight operations, a sea lion proves its reference when the frigate "North Rhine-Westphalia" is put into service (photos: Bundeswehr)

Apart from the internal way of working, the balance of power between the hunter and the submarine shifted to the latter in the main task area of ​​the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). Despite the improvements experienced by classic sensors, hull mounted sonar, diving sonar and individual sonar buoys, they could not offset the range advantage that the submarines had developed.

The medium-frequency diving sonar of the Lynx is ideal for a punctual, detailed examination with subsequent classification of a contact. However, its use in conjunction with a frigate, which has a hull-mounted sonar, resembles a very expensive form of pot hitting in modern U-hunting, which uses far-reaching sensors. The developments in the recent past in bi and multistatics (modern location method, in which two or more sonar devices work in a technical network) should lead to a balance in the balance of power of the opponents, but from the user's point of view this is not yet sufficient in the Sea Tiger considered. The latter is currently to be delivered with a low-frequency sonar and sonar buoys. Only if both components are integrated into the modern bi-static and multi-static location system will the fleet have excellent submarine helicopters that can be used flexibly in any sea area in the world.

The Light Tiger torpedo MU90 will be available to the Sea Tiger, a weapon system that doesn't have to shy away from international comparison and is already being used with the Lynx. The experiences made so far are very positive and you have to say that with the NH90 Sea Tiger the size of the helicopter is finally adapted to the weapon. The torpedo pushed the Lynx to its constructive limits. In addition, the preparation of a practice shooting still involves an incredibly high administrative effort. With the Sea Tiger it is possible to make this a routine process. With which the squadron with the weapon will finally be able to practice as naturally as is the case, for example, in the 1st submarine squadron.

From the better drone to a full-fledged anti-surface warfare helicopter

In the field of anti-surface warfare (ASuW) there will be the greatest leap forward. On the one hand, this is due to the improved situation map, which will be much faster and more comprehensive due to the already described extended sensor suite and the first-time use of a mission system. The squadron of the ESM system (ESM - Electronic Support Measures) is looking forward with great excitement, which means completely new territory for "Lynxer" and will entail a lot of viewing by the pilots of the P-3C of the MFG 3 "Graf Zeppelin".

On the other hand, a gap is closed in the field of effectors with the new sea target guided missile of the Sea Tiger, which gaped painfully in the Lynx's portfolio of tasks since the phase out of the Sea Skua in 2014. The technical progress, the increased range and especially the land target capability of the sea target guided missile will amount to a new launch. The experience from handling the Sea Skua, largely forgotten anyway, is of little help. The inclusion in a joint targeting process at the latest (comprehensive targeting, eg for a country target) will massively broaden the horizon of each relay member. Apart from the fact that the procedures for effective use against a "peer competitor" (an opponent of equal or higher value) still have to be developed.

Ensure the previous flexibility - personnel, material, external cargo flights

In the future, the other tasks of an on-board helicopter, namely the supply of the association units from land and among themselves, will have to be presented in exactly the same way as before. In terms of operational flexibility, a lot will change compared to the Lynx.

On the one hand, there is still a lot of experience to be had in operation and maintenance in flight operations in order to be able to use the 11-tonne GRP helicopter just as well as the half-heavy aluminum predecessor. On the other hand, there has also been a massive change in the safety culture of recent years: Can it be imagined today how soldiers work without security on or on a helicopter while it is standing on the flight deck of a swaying ship? From the perspective of the squadron, the focus should again be on order fulfillment. Without security being neglected as a result.

The Sea Tiger differs from the Sea Lion shown here, among other things, by a different configuration in the bow area

With the change in the safety culture, deficits that have been recognized for a long time can also be remedied and abilities can be significantly expanded: This means performing night flights. In exchange with on-board pilots of other nations, the reactions fluctuate regularly between unbelief and incomprehension that the Lynx pilots work completely without night vision devices. Here, the NH90 Sea Tiger is hopeful that it will be possible to work with the partner navies again at eye level. A conventional night flight in the middle of several other darkened planes is, to say the least, "sporty".

German Navy - discover the possibilities!

All in all, it can be said that with the arrival of the NH90 Sea Tiger, the fleet will have a significantly more potent naval warfare agent. However, due to the long-term participation in stabilization missions such as "Atalanta" or "UNIFIL", the tactical use of the on-board helicopters, including their integration in combat situations, is no longer present. From the perspective of the squadron, the moving fleet does not think enough about how much these flying operations centers could change the way a maritime task group operates. If the Navy realizes that the NH 90 Sea Tiger is not a Sea Lynx Version 1.3 and reacts accordingly, the fleet can tap the full potential of the on-board helicopter.

Then the pressure on participating and superior departments to check the timelines, so the squadron hoped, would increase: Although the naval aviators had requested the introduction of the Sea Lynx successor by the end of 2023, there is currently an offer, the first helicopters at the earliest December To be delivered in 2024, assuming a timely conclusion of the contract. Even then, the required break-free transition will not be feasible, since the new weapon system will naturally not be fully operational immediately.

At the same time, the Lynx will be retired from service by 2025, and from 2022 the available annual flight hours should be gradually reduced. On the other hand, this will make the regeneration of relay staff more difficult given the expected need for operational embarkation. If the youngsters cannot be offered a realistic perspective on building experience in flying, either on the new or on the old system, the risk of resignation during the training course is high. An international experience. Here better coordinated, understandable and communicable timelines have to be found.

The task mountain before the third season

These timelines are also the basic prerequisite for a clean planning of the personnel transfer, but also for the long-term motivation of our team members in order to attune them to the tasks ahead of us:

1 - Analysis of the MRFH: Although dealing with the new system has already taken place selectively, an in-depth analysis of the helicopter to be procured is still missing from the operator's point of view - important in order to explore possibilities and limits in theory.

2 - Preparing people: The new helicopter represents a quantum leap. The earlier the fears of contact of the old "Lynxers" can be reduced and they accept the MRFH as "their" weapon system, the better.

3 - Break-free transition: The aim of the internal personnel transfer to the new weapon system must be to guarantee at least one continuous embarkation.

The spirit of the 3rd Flying Season is shaped by the motto "Fly where the fleet is traveling". We are proudly committed to this idea and will continue to do so passionately with the Sea Tiger. Once the aircraft are available on board, the added value of the NH90 MRFH Sea Tiger compared to its predecessor will be obvious and significant. The first experiences from flight operations with the "brother" NH90 NTH Sea Lion point this out. However, in order to remain true to a basic principle of aviation “Stay ahead of the aircraft!”, It is imperative at all levels up to approval by the Bundestag to create facts in the process. This is the only way that the 3rd Flying Squadron will be able to successfully shape the next 40 years of aviation!

Frigate captain Sebastian Goldstein is Squadron Captain of the 3rd Flying Squadron in Naval Aviation Squadron 5.