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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ambition Awakens in Asia

The Asian market, with China at its center, is one that western OEMs are reaching for, but China’s military requirement is forcing it to seek internal growth.

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

The Chinese and Asian military helicopter markets are ones that are double-edged for most western helicopter manufacturers (OEMs). While directly supplying the Chinese military is not a market that is open to them, the huge rise in China’s economic strength and its subsequent renewed drive to modernize its military forces are giving many of its neighbors, who can buy from the western OEMs, the reason and impetus to do so.

China’s new aircraft carriers could operate airborne early
warning Russian Helicopters Ka-31s.

But the expansion of the helicopter market in China is one that no international helicopter OEM can afford to ignore. From a mere 200 helicopters around the start of the century, some estimates have indicated a requirement for over 10,000 in all sectors by 2020. The limited but gradual opening of restricted airspace will be a major factor in dictating how fast this growth will occur. But private ownership, either by individuals or corporate organizations of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, not allowed up to 2003, is now fueled by the rise of independent wealth that is booming in the nation.

China has to date focused on its ability to build helicopters under license, although this is changing as its ambitions grow. The Harbin Aircraft Industry Co. has produced the Harbin Z-5 (a version of the Russian Helicopters Mil Mi-4), Z-9 (reproduction of Eurocopter’s medium twin-engine Dauphin) and most recently the HC-120 Colibri in partnership with Eurocopter and Singapore Technologies.

The Changhe Aircraft Industry Company (CAIC) produces the Z-8 (Super Frelon), Z-11(AS 350 Ecureuil), S-92 and CA109. In 2008 AVIC II, through Changhe Aircraft, became a shareholder in Shanghai Sikorsky.

Making a recent debut appearance from CAIC is the WZ-10 attack helicopter which is reported to be operational with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It is described as a battlefield/anti-armor helicopter with a secondary role of air-to-air. Its weapons systems are thought to include HJ-10 air-to-ground missiles, TY-90 air-to-air missiles together with a potential variety of unguided missiles. Its cannon can be varied between 23 mm to 30 mm, depending on the threat faced.

But China now has the economic power to establish its own indigenous military sector, and by using its financial muscle it can cut development corners by working and partnering with western OEMs over civilian helicopter procurement and development, while educating its aerospace engineers who will fast-track the information into China’s own military projects.

There is nothing that the OEMs can do about this as nobody wants to miss the opportunity of gaining the most revenue from China while in a position to do so—‘making hay while the sun shines,’ so to speak.

An indication of China’s quest to improve its military capability seems to be confirmed by recent reports from Pakistan that the authorities gave Chinese engineers access to the remaining parts of the wreck of the allegedly ‘stealthy’ MH-60 Black Hawk that crashed during Operation Neptune Spear—the successful raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. Parts of the helicopter have also reportedly been taken back to China for further study.

There is emerging evidence that China has ambitions to take its indigenous products to the export market. Exhibiting under the collective grouping of ‘China Defence,’ 17 Chinese military trade enterprises and companies attended this year’s International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) and Naval Defence Exhibition (NAVDEX) held during February in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Within the variety of fighter and trainer aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles was the Z-9 attack helicopter.

As an example of what might be to come, the unveiling of the first Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carrier at the beginning of August, the 67,500-ton ex-Varyag (Admiral Kuznetsov class) bought from a shipyard in Ukraine, represents what could be the first step on the road to a Chinese carrier centric ‘blue water’ navy. Although this aircraft carrier can hardly match those of the U.S. fleet, there must be the first pangs of alarm at what might be in the future (up to four more carriers are thought to be planned).

In 2010, PLAN is reported to have acquired at least nine Russian Ka-31 airborne early warning helicopters, which could operate from these carriers. These helicopters may be fitted with a bar-shaped array radar and could be accompanied by airborne early warning (AEW) and anti-submarine (ASuW) versions of the Changhe Z-8.

Deliveries of some of the latest civil helicopter types continue. Eurocopter has now completed the handover of four EC225s to the China Ministry of Transport’s (MoT) Rescue and Salvage Bureau (CRS). This completes a 2009 contract for two additional EC225s, the first two having been delivered in 2007. The helicopters are all being used in the search and rescue (SAR) role, the latter two focusing on offshore SAR. The EC225s have been fitted with searchlights, weather radar, hoist and modern avionics.

The new Chinese WZ-10 attack helicopter from
Changhe Aircraft Industries Corp.

At the handing over ceremony for the final helicopter on August 7, Bruno Boulnois, CEO of Eurocopter China emphasized the importance of sectors such as SAR within the Chinese market to Eurocopter: “Delivering the helicopters is just the first step; we will also be working closely with MOT/CRS in developing SAR technologies by sharing our technical know-how, as well as training flight personnel and operators, to build up a robust SAR network for the country.”

Regional Round-Up

At the beginning of August, two Sikorsky MH-60S Seahawks were flown to the Port of Baltimore to begin their voyage to Thailand and serve with the Royal Thai Navy. These are the first MH-60S helicopters to be delivered to an international customer and were purchased through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. The MH-60S will be used for utility missions and will join the Thai Navy’s existing six S-70Bs and six marinized S-76B helicopters, also purchased under FMS in the late 1990s. The MH-60S helicopters are also equipped with a searchlight and rescue hoist allowing them to conduct SAR missions. The Thai Navy also has options on additional aircraft.

Earlier in the year the Royal Thai Air Force received three VVIP S-92 helicopters to be used for Head of State missions. As such they come equipped with LifePort medical systems. Delivered in April, the six-month training period will shortly end allowing the aircraft to enter daily service.

Another first for Sikorsky, as well as being the announcement that had been eagerly anticipated in the southern hemisphere, was the decision by the Australian government to select the MH-60R Seahawk as its new multi-role naval combat helicopter over NH Industries marinized NH-90. The Australian Defence Force will be the first foreign operator of the MH-60 Romeo and will operate a fleet of 24 of the helicopters. Again, the purchase is through an FMS agreement.

The Team Romeo selection (Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin) also includes engines from GE Aviation, sonar and sensor from Raytheon and a training simulation package from CAE.

“The MH-60R is a sophisticated sensor platform that has proven its ability to protect the U.S. fleet from submarines, ships and fast attack boats,” said Dan Spoor, Lockheed Martin Aviation Systems vice president. “We are committed to providing the Australian fleet with the same advanced capabilities, as the U.S. Navy continues its investment in the aircraft.” The acquisition of the MH-60Rs is part of the ADF’s Air 9000 Phase 8 modernization program.

AW139 for the Japanese Coast Guard. AgustaWestland

In Japan, one of the enduring images of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster following the earthquake and tsunami off the north eastern coast earlier in the year was the hugely brave but ultimately futile attempt by the crews manning one Chinook to overfly the badly damaged Unit 3 reactor and dump seawater on top in a bid to cool it. Four loads were delivered this way but most of the water was dispersed during the operation. There were questions at the time regarding why unmanned rotorcraft such as the K-MAX could not have been rapidly brought into the country to do such a job.

In the wake of that horrific experience Eurocopter has just announced that the Japanese Coast Guard will contract for three more EC225s, adding to the two helicopters that they purchased in 2006. These will be dedicated mainly to SAR and anti-piracy missions.

In Japan many military aircraft such as the Boeing CH-47 Chinook are built under license by a number of industrial OEMs such as Kawasaki Heavy Industries. Three more CH-47Fs are currently on order for the Japanese military. Fuji Heavy Industries has a license to build Boeing’s AH-64D with the first being produced in 2006. The Apache was the aircraft selected to replace the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force’s (JGSDF) 88 Fuji-Bell AH-1S Cobra attack helicopters. Although Boeing built the first Japanese Apaches (AH-64DJP) at its Mesa, Ariz. Facility, subsequent aircraft would be built in Japan.

Japan has been a reliable customer for AgustaWestland’s AW139. In March this year Mitsui Bussan Aerospace, AgustaWestland’s distributor in Japan received contracts for an additional seven AW139s from the Japanese Coast Guard, bringing the total ordered by the organization to 18 AW139s, with six scheduled to be delivered during this year.

At the end of 2010, Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) decided on new UH-60J helicopters, built under license by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), to replace its fleet of 40 older MHI-built MH-60Js operated by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) in a military SAR role. The one-for-one replacements will be phased in over 20 years in a program worth around $2.3 billion (190 billion yen). The new model will incorporate a removable aerial refueling probe to allow tanker refueling, as well as satellite communications and a collision avoidance system.

In December last year the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) took delivery of the final aircraft of three AW139s ordered back in October 2008. They will be used in the agency’s daily tasks that include SAR, coastal patrol and law enforcement operations along Malaysia’s huge coastline.

At the Paris Air Show in June, Eurocopter and signed a cooperation agreement with the Malaysian Ministry of Defence (MoD) to strengthen the country’s aeronautical skills and training. It is linked to Eurocopter’s supply of 12 SAR-configured EC725s which were selected by the Malaysian government for the Royal Malaysian Air Force to replace its old S-61 Nuri helicopters.

The agreement includes: a civil/military joint venture for a regional EC725/EC225 full flight simulator that will be open to regional Asian operators of the types; the development of a maintenance repair and overhaul centre for the government fleet; the integration of Malaysian industry into the Eurocopter Global Supply Chain and the creation of an aeronautical training centre.

Boeing’s penetration of the region regarding its Chinook program and upgrades includes the Australian Defence Force where there is a campaign to provide seven new CH-47Fs to replace the existing five CH-47Ds (there were six but one crashed in Afghanistan in May). Other countries with CH-47Ds include Thailand, six; Taiwan, eight CH-47SDs; Japan, 69 Kawasaki-built CH-47Ds with three CH-47Fs on order; and Korea with 23 CH-47Ds and five HH-47Ds – a Search & Rescue (SAR) version featuring large fuel tanks and nose radar.

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