Seasprite helicopter project approved

  • Jonathan Coleman

Defence Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman says the government has approved the purchase of an upgraded and expanded Seasprite helicopter fleet for the New Zealand Defence Force.

A total of eight Seasprites (plus two spare airframes) will be purchased from the United States company Kaman Aerospace in a $242 million dollar deal, which includes a training simulator, missiles, and additional components.

“The Defence Force currently has five Seasprites which have been in service since the late1990s and are due for replacement,” said Dr Coleman.

“This package from Kaman Aerospace will provide the Navy with an upgraded variant, the Seasprite SH-2G(I), and increase the fleet from five to eight helicopters. It will allow helicopters to be embarked on the two ANZAC-class frigates (TE MANA and TE KAHA) as well as the offshore patrol vessels and the multi-role ship HMNZS CANTERBURY,” he said.

“These helicopters come with modernised sensor, weapons and flight control systems and will be a major boost to our maritime surveillance and search capability. The helicopters will also ensure that our naval fleet is able to operate at its full potential,” said Dr Coleman.

The replacement helicopters were originally built for the Australian Defence Force. In 2009 the Australian government elected to cancel the contract and not to introduce them into service after questions about their suitability to meet Australia’s requirements.

“The New Zealand Defence Force and Ministry of Defence officials are acutely aware that the Australian government decided not to fully introduce these aircraft into service after concerns about a range of technical issues,” said Dr Coleman.

“As a consequence the New Zealand Ministry of Defence has invested considerable resources into examining all aspects of this project over the last two years. This included commissioning an independent study by Marinvent Corporation of Canada.”

“Ministry of Defence officials have advised the government this aircraft will prove a very capable purchase, meet all of the New Zealand Defence Force’s requirements, and can be introduced into service.”

“Based on this advice and after looking at other replacement options the government approved this project. The replacement Seasprites will have a multiplier effect on the capability of the Navy and what’s more the price is very good with alternative helicopter replacements costing three times the amount,” said Dr Coleman.


Questions & Answers

Why do we need new helicopters?

  • The current Seasprite fleet is nearly 15 years old and some of the systems are failing. Spare parts are becoming scarce. Manufacturers no longer support some of the systems, and newer versions have improved capabilities.
  • The current fleet of five helicopters is too small. Only two aircraft are regularly available for use on the Navy’s ships (one is used for training and two are in maintenance).
  • Five of the Navy’s ships can operate a helicopter. This is up from three when the current Seasprites were acquired. To get full value from our investment in the frigates and other naval vessels, we need a larger fleet of helicopters with upgraded components and better communications capability.

What does the Kaman package include?

  • The Kaman package consists of ten Super Seasprite helicopters (two will be used as spares), a full motion flight simulator, training aids, spares inventory and publications.

How do the new aircraft differ from the current fleet?

  • The new aircraft have updated flight control systems and modern radar and sensors. They also have a modern communications system that allows sensor data to be shared between the helicopter and ship.
  • The new sensors provide a much greater range and ability for surveillance and search and rescue.

Has the NZDF tested the aircraft?

  • Defence Force personnel have conducted several evaluation flights in one of these helicopters. The pilot and crew members were impressed by the step-up in capabilities these new aircraft will bring to the Defence Force.
  • Separately, Marinvent Corporation, the Canadian airworthiness expert contracted by Defence to examine the aircraft, were involved in flight trials as part of their own evaluation process.

What missile does the new Seasprite carry?

  • Our current fleet of Seasprites carries a Maverick missile, which is a general-purpose air-to-surface missile, designed for use against ground targets and shipping. The new aircraft will carry the Penguin missile, which is an anti-ship missile.
  • The Penguin is a better missile. It is bigger, faster, has a warhead three times the size of the Maverick, has twice the range, and once launched the aircraft is free to turn-away. The Penguin can also perform random weaving manoeuvres and strike the target close to the waterline, making it more difficult to counter.

Are these new aircraft?

  • Unlike the current New Zealand Seasprite fleet which were new at the time of purchase, Australia chose to refurbish former US Navy airframes.
  • The practice of refurbishing airframes is common. It involves a complete re-build of the body to a point where it is regarded as new and the fitting of new avionics, engines, wiring, software, fittings, and weapons and sensor systems. The aircraft have a service life out to 2030.
  • Refurbished aircraft are common to all defence forces, and the Seasprite airframes will be no different in age to our upgraded C-130 Hercules and P3K2 Orions, except the entire Seasprite fleet only has a total of 1200 flying hours.

Why would these helicopters be suitable when Australia cancelled its contract?

  • At the time Australia bought 11 Seasprites for $1 billion but decided to add bespoke enhancements, including a sophisticated computer controlled flight operating system. After a series of delays, project management issues, and cost over-runs the Australian government cancelled the project.
  • A key issue was the Australian Defence Force specified an aircraft that could be flown by a two-person crew and have a computer flight system that could operate the aircraft with “no hands” on the controls.
  • The NZDF has a different requirement. It will operate the aircraft with a three-person crew, as is current practice with its standard operating procedure for pilots to retain a hold on the controls at all times. The “no-hands” requirement is not being adopted.
  • All other technical issues have been resolved by Kaman who continued to further develop the aircraft after Australia cancelled the contract.

When will the aircraft arrive?

  • The aircraft are currently in storage in Connecticut, USA. They will need to be returned to flying condition, and undergo some minor modifications to suit New Zealand’s requirements. The NZDF will undertake the usual airworthiness and certification process in preparation for operational flying.
  • The first three aircraft are due in New Zealand in late 2014. The fleet should all be in service during 2016.

What is a breakdown in the purchase price?

The purchase price includes $US120 million (about $NZ147 million) for the 8 aircraft going into service and two further airframes. The additional project costs are for missiles, the flight simulator, ship decklock modification, additional components, testing and introduction into service activities.