The Royal Australian Navy has a suite of nine simulators supporting a fleet of 24 MH60R helicopters. Kate Warner visited the site at HMAS Albatross in Nowra.

Be Aggressive’, the motto of the 725 Squadron of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), reflects the determined and progressive approach they’ve taken to training the aircrews and maintainers of the RAN’s newest and most potent aircraft, the MH60R Seahawk naval combat helicopter.

This next-generation submarine hunter and anti-surface warfare helicopter, packed full of advanced technology, demands a next-generation training facility to ensure its crew is thoroughly versed in its combat potential.

Based at HMAS Albatross in Nowra, New South Wales, the Seahawk Simulator and Warfare Centre (SSWC) is a completely integrated, state-of-the-art training facility, custom-built to train the aircrews and maintainers of the fleet of 24 MH60Rs, known as ‘Romeo’.

But this multi-mission maritime helicopter is anything but a sweet talker. ‘Romeo’ is equipped with a cutting-edge combat system designed to employ Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and the Mark 54 anti-submarine torpedo, as well as a suite of highly sophisticated sensors.

Capt. Grant O’Loughlan, Deputy Commander of the RAN’s Fleet Air Arm, said the new Seahawk was a “significant step-change” over the previous version, and that the Romeo is “the best maritime combat helicopter embarked at sea on frigates and destroyers”.

“What it brings to the fight is unparalleled, and ships do not want to go to sea today without their embarked maritime combat helicopter. It gives the commander so much choice, opportunity and capability that is fundamental to the way we operate in the RAN today,” he said.

Seahawk Succession

The primary missions of the MH60R are anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface warfare, with secondary missions including search and rescue, logistics support, personnel transport and medivac. The aircrew of three consists of the Aircraft Captain, Mission Commander and Sensor Operator.

The MH60R and its mission systems replaced the fleet’s S70B2 Seahawk aircraft, which retired in December 2017 after 28 years in service. The Australian Government approved the acquisition of 24 MH60Rs at a cost of more than $3 billion. The Sikorsky-built helicopters were acquired through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) process from the US Navy (USN).

The last of the 24 MH60Rs was delivered in September 2016, giving the RAN the capacity to provide at least eight warships with a combat helicopter at the same time, including the Anzac class frigates, the new Air Warfare Destroyers and future Hunter class frigates. The remainder are based at HMAS Albatross in various stages of the regular maintenance and training cycle, with the 725 Squadron responsible for training of aircrew and maintainers and the 816 Squadron focused on operational support.

Troubleshooting avionics system faults on the avionics/maintenance weapons load trainer (AMWLT). Image credit: CAE.
Troubleshooting avionics system faults on the avionics/maintenance weapons load trainer (AMWLT). Image credit: CAE.

CAE-RAN Collaboration

The overhaul of the RAN’s ageing S70B2s was the catalyst for the development of a new range of high-fidelity training systems and in 2012, CAE Defence & Security was awarded the contract to design, manufacture and deliver a comprehensive suite of training devices and simulators for the incoming MH60Rs. Under the FMS arrangement with the USN, CAE is also responsible for operating and maintaining the training systems alongside the 725 Squadron. As well, CAE provides essential training support services including instructors, operator support and courseware revision services.

O’Loughlan said, “The only way we can train today is by an integrated training system. This is another step-change for us in the RAN: the amount of integration we have with industry. We could not do this without our industry partners.”

“Without highly professional, well-trained people, the helicopters are just bits of metal sitting in a hangar… what we need is highly trained maintainers, aircrew and support staff, to make sure we get the most out of this capability on a day-to-day basis,” he added.

Together, the RAN and CAE prepare pilots, aviation warfare officers and sensor operators for the range of missions performed by the Seahawk as well as significant levels of maintainer training designed to support the RAN’s two aviation technical trades, Aviation Technician Avionics (ATV) and Aviation Technician Aircraft (ATA).

The expansive suite of training devices and simulators includes two tactical operational flight trainers (TOFTs), each comprised of an operational flight trainer (OFT) to train pilots and a weapons tactics trainer (WTT) to train airborne tactics officers along with rear-crew sensor operators. The OFTs and WTTs can be operated as standalone training devices or networked to become an MH60R tactical operational flight trainer that provides a total aircrew mission training system.

Commanding Officer of 725 Squadron, Commander Stan Buckham, said the SSWC enables them to enhance their “understanding [of] the Seahawk’s capabilities”, and to explore the full range of its potential. “We are still trying to evolve and understand what this beast of a machine can do.”

The CAE TOFT systems were the world’s first MH60R flight simulators to be formally certified to Level D, the highest qualification for flight simulators, and offer six degree-of-freedom motion with a 220- by 60-degree field of view visual display, plus full mission and weapons system simulation.

Additional training devices include a rear crew trainer (RCT), an enhanced landing safety officer part task trainer (ELSOPTT), an avionics/maintenance weapons load trainer (AMWLT), a composite maintenance trainer (CMT) and the BRomeo maintenance trainer.

MS&T’s Kate Warner tries her hand at the rear-crew virtual reality trainer built by Australian company Virtual Simulation Solutions. Image credit: Author.
MS&T’s Kate Warner tries her hand at the rear-crew virtual reality trainer built by Australian company Virtual Simulation Solutions. Image credit: Author.

The RCT, built under contract to CAE by Australian company Virtual Simulation Solutions (VSS), is a modified aircraft mock-up featuring a module for training hoist and loading operations, as well as two weapons modules for door gunnery training with GAU21 and MAG58 machine guns, using virtual reality (VR) headsets to connect trainees to the VR training environment.

The ELSOPTT, also built by VSS, provides immersive training for Landing Safety Officers (LSO). The device consists of a replica of the LSO cabin of an Australian frigate, using an augmented reality (AR) high-fidelity view of the external environment.

The purpose-built AMWLT simulator is used by technical trainees to troubleshoot avionic system faults and weapon loading / unloading procedures, while the CMT and the BRomeo maintenance trainer are ex-USN SH60B aircrafts used to simulate and troubleshoot mechanical, hydraulic and avionic system faults, the testing of components, and servicing inspections.

In 2020, the SSWC will welcome a new automatic flight control system trainer (AFCST) to complete their suite of training devices in support of the MH60R training program.

Ongoing upgrades to the current systems will see continued alignment with MH60R modifications, as well as alignment with the USN’s MH60R training devices. And whilst the RAN’s two TOFT systems can be linked internally, their aim is to be able to network with other ADF and US training devices.

RAN 725 Squadron motto and patches. Image credit: CAE.
RAN 725 Squadron motto and patches. Image credit: CAE.

Equipped and Motivated

Looking to the future of RAN training, Buckham commented on the huge untapped potential of simulation, noting that it’s important to “evolve with the times, with technology” and that it would have been impossible for them to have achieved their outcomes without their synthetic training environment, stating, “simulation is key to training the numbers of people they need to train.”

But it’s not just a numbers game. Simulation has enabled the SSWC to not only train larger numbers of aircrews and maintainers more quickly, but to also deliver vastly improved training. “We now have an unparalleled level of live, synthetic, virtual training to make sure our men and women are delivered and provided the best training … when they go to sea, they are equipped, motivated and have the wherewithal to operate in that ambiguous maritime environment that the government of Australia asks us to go and operate in,” O’Loughlan commented.

The 725 Squadron is clearly proud of their facility and what their close, ongoing collaboration with industry has enabled them to achieve. This looks to continue with an additional 10-year agreement signed with the USN to support their capability into the future.

As the 725 Squadron advances its mission to fully understand the power and potential of the MH60R, and to train its aircrews and technicians to the best of their abilities, their ‘Be Aggressive’ motto will serve them well. Ambitious, determined and forward-thinking, the 725 Squadron isn’t afraid to collaborate to innovate. 

Originally published in Issue 2, 2019 of MS&T Magazine.