NH90: Major milestone as Italian Navy deliveries completed

Europe’s largest military helicopter programme has reached an important landmark with the completion of NH90 deliveries to the Italian Navy. Naval Captain Massimiliano Venturini reflects on the operational contribution and capabilities of the helicopter.

From an Italian Navy perspective, how significant is this moment – the completion of NH90 deliveries?

The delivery of the last NH90 helicopter for the Italian Navy has a meaning full of content and emotions. First of all, it means giving voice to great efforts, motivation and cast iron commitment of a multitude of pilots, flight operators, and technicians who believed in the full operational development of this helicopter. It means bringing to completion one of the major programmes of Italian naval aviation, a glorious page that began on 1st September 1992 when we embraced this futuristic project, an invaluable milestone in the progress of naval military helicopters.

A long history, surrounded with obstacles but permeated by a lot of commitment, motivation and enthusiasm, which however doesn’t come to an end on 29th September with the delivery of HITN-046. A story whose objective will now changes, switching from production to the maximum operational projection of the NH90 fleet through the joint support and collaboration of NAHEMA and the NHI industrial consortium in ensuring an effective model of integrated logistics support of the helicopter in all its aspects (Repair & Overhaul, Supply Chain, Base Maintenance, obsolescence mitigation, Material Support, etc.) in order to carry out altogether constant updates to extend the operation and effectiveness of the NH90 beyond 2040.

For the Italian Navy, the completion of NH90 deliveries also means being part of Europe's largest military helicopter programme established to meet the collective requirements of the four founding nations (Italy, France, the Netherlands and Germany) of the NATO Helicopter Management Agency – NAHEMA. The NH90 is undoubtedly the "backbone" of the Italian Navy rotary-wing fleet, enabling its most effective sea projection capability. In a nutshell a successful choice: currently the number of helicopters available allows the Navy to effectively cope with operational commitments of the fleet, obtaining positive feedback from the crews. A helicopter capable of operating in any scenario, from the most recent support activities for natural disaster relief inland (… my mind switched to the most recent flooding event in Emilia Romagna) to operations wherever an Italian Navy ship is deployed around the globe (as in the Gulf of Guinea and Indian Ocean), contributing to protection of sea-lines of communication, international stability, anti-piracy, safeguarding of national interests and to strengthen the international security framework.

Bottom line, the delivery of the last NH90 marks the transition to a new chapter in the Navy's synergy with the industrial sector and maintaining the same paradigm: "continue to work as a team", "continue to walk together": NAHEMA, NHI with its various Partner Companies. Only in this way we will succeed in overcoming the forthcoming challenges beyond the horizon, writing even more exciting and rewarding pages of our history.

Can you speak a little about the operational requirements for the SH-90A and MH-90A? What are the demands of the missions and how is the NH-90 enhancing the overall rotorcraft capability of the Italian Navy?

Nowadays the operational requirements are absolutely demanding, ranging from conventional warfare capabilities at sea to asymmetric threats, in a multi-dimensional environment. Therefore, the ability to perform maritime patrol, including monitoring, reconnaissance, surveillance and eventually interdiction, is crucial to ensure security in a crisis situation and law enforcement to prevent illegal activities, such as smuggling and piracy.

Both SH-90A and MH-90A are also equipped for search and rescue operations (SAR), which involve locating and rescuing individuals in distress at sea, day and night, eventually even over land. These scenarios imply advanced search and detection and navigation systems, as well as the ability to operate in marginal conditions and very low illumination with NVG.

SH-90A helicopters are often tasked in the full spectrum of Anti-Submarine Warfare and Anti-surface Warfare missions, which require advanced sensors able to detect surface targets, subsurface contacts, as well effective weapon systems to deter. As a matter of fact, the NH90 enhances the Italian Navy's rotorcraft capability for its flexibility and multi-mission adaptability, as it was required in its initial project definition. The programme fulfilled the task assigned, to deliver a modern asset that could fit, by design, multiple mission configurations, making it versatile for various naval tasks, from SAR to Anti-Submarine Warfare. Its avionics and advanced platform and mission systems enhance safety and situational awareness and, therefore, overall effectiveness in the complex naval environments. Furthermore, its extended endurance and range provide greater coverage of maritime areas, crucial for patrolling and surveillance missions. These capabilities confirm the NH90 as a valuable operative asset for the Italian Navy, helping to meet the high standards and demanding operational requirements of maritime security and defence.

What are the specific characteristics and capabilities of the NH90 that are valuable from an operational perspective?

The NH90 has proven to be a very versatile, easy to reconfigure and reliable multi-mission helicopter and a pivotal asset in complex scenarios and demanding operational environments.

With the extensive use of advanced materials and cutting-edge equipment, the NH90 is an innovative weapon system, able to maintain the high-performance standards required by NATO.

Its unique aerodynamics combined with the latest generation avionics, the "fly by wire" technology and advanced flight control modes, guarantee effectiveness in terms of high performance and pilot handling, giving a relevant value of the NH90 as a multipurpose helicopter in any flight situation.

Specifically, the SH-90A’s operational pivotal relevance is given by its complete sensor suite, consisting of Radar, Link, HELRAS sonar and/or sonobuoys, ESM and electrooptical system combined in a fully integrated mission system managed by the crew, and the wide-ranging weapons it can be equipped with, such as Marte MK2/S Missile, M-134D machine guns and MU-90 torpedoes. The NH90 is designed to operate primarily in a naval environment and the cabin can be reconfigured to meet different types of tasks.

The MH-90, developed for maritime assault and amphibious support missions, can be configured with troop seats or eventually equipped with stretcher mount kits and up to two M-134D machine guns; the ability to support special and amphibious operations with projection from the sea is guaranteed by the self defence system and the integrated visualisation to the pilots of the obstacle warning system, FLIR and navigation data for increased situational awareness.

The Italian Navy’s NH90 fleet has logged more than 35,000 flight hours since the first helicopter was delivered in 2011. Can you give a sense of the range of missions the helicopter has performed both in Italy and internationally?

The SH-90 is currently used in several national and international operations such as “Mediterraneo Sicuro”, IRINI, EMASoH, EUNAVFOR ATALANTA and GABINIA in the Gulf of Guinea and it has been used in all Italian Navy exercises since 2011, with a special focus on Anti-Submarine Warfare. Every day the Italian Navy assures two land-based NH90s ready to respond in less than two hours to any kind of military operation or in support to the civilian population.

The first real task for the SH-90 in fact, was the rescue mission of the Norman Atlantic ferry’s passengers, victim of a fire on board in December 2014. The helicopter was able to operate safely despite the dangerous environment and critical weather conditions. More recently instead, the use of two MH-90As was fundamental for the security of the cargo ship Galata Seaways off the coast of Naples in June 2023 where a group of stowaways attempted to hijack the vessel.

Periodically an exercise is also conducted with the “National Mountain and Speleological Rescue Corps”, highlighting the possibility for the NH90 to operate with any other national or international service.

2011 seems a long time ago, have the operational requirements evolved over that time and, if so, how has the NH90 adapted to meet this challenge?

Over the last decade, there has been a growing demand for helicopters that can perform a wide range of roles, with improved flexibility and survivability. Since then, helicopters are also expected to have extended operational ranges, with greater situational awareness. Even though we assisted to a change of the scenario, that now ranges from the last decade low intensity asymmetric and terrorist threat to the actual full conventional one, the NH90 is still able to face the challenge thanks to its specific design and comprehensive mission system, allowing multiple mission configurations, from troop transport and cargo lift to medical evacuation, reconnaissance, and Anti-Submarine Warfare.

In the future, the software update programme (so-called Software Weapon Release 3, SWR 3) will mark the implementation of more advanced avionics and sensor systems, enabling a relevant improvement in situational awareness, navigation and mission effectiveness.

Are there any missions that particularly stand out over the past 12 years where the helicopter has made a significant contribution?

Over the past 12 years, the Italian Navy has performed a wide range of operations testing the full spectrum of SH/MH-90A capabilities. The results surely met the requirements, proving the NH90 to be the optimal choice for highly demanding modern battlefield missions ranging from naval operations, including anti-submarine (ASW) and anti-ship (ASuW) warfare, to special and amphibious operations, medical evacuations (MEDEVAC), search and rescue (SAR), combat search and rescue (CSAR), and tactical troop transport. Capable of being operated in any meteorological and environmental conditions, the SH/MH-90A features a quadruplex fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system (FCS) for reduced pilot workload and enhanced handling qualities. The excellent power-to-weight ratio and flight control system, the wide range of role equipment, and the fully integrated tactical mission system allow the crews to increase their mission effectiveness by expanding their situational awareness while keeping them more focused on the mission objective, having granted high safety standards. Its reliability, excellent endurance, load capacity, speed, and sensor performances give the SH/MH-90A the leading role for operations over the sea, where it has been proven to be a force multiplier for the naval force in terms of expanding the ship's radar horizon to detect, track, and identify surface targets and enhancing command and control capabilities (C2) in complex maritime operations, such as in 2015 supporting the evacuation of the Italian Embassy in Libya, where the SH-90A really stood out for its multi-role capabilities in performing shipborne operations, assuring C2 while escorting the civilian ferry while being ready for a possible medevac.

The opening of the Full Crew Simulation Training Centre is another important milestone. How will it support your crew training requirements?

The opening of the Full Crew Simulation Training Centre represents a significant milestone that greatly enhances our crew training capabilities in a safe environment. It is a fundamental centre, not only with regard to flight and emergencies training for an advanced helicopter, but specifically for the crew mission training from basic to different complex scenarios, in order to acquire the full competences and exploit the full capabilities of the helicopter mission system in a comprehensive scenario. It’s a capability you could not afford or not be able to duplicate in live training, but that you could be asked to face in a real operation.

The training centre is a critical asset that will not only enhance the readiness and capabilities of our crews but also contribute to cost savings and the overall effectiveness of our fleet management. It represents a significant step forward in supporting our commitment to provide our crews with the highest safety and quality training and to ensure to the nation the success of missions when asked to operate.

How significant is the Level D Full Flight Simulator in full MR1 configuration? What will it deliver for pilots and other specialised personnel?

The Full Flight Simulator configuration is of immense significance for our training programmes and delivers several critical benefits for pilots and aircrews. It will deliver the highest level of fidelity and realism because it replicates the aircraft's behaviour and performance with exceptional accuracy, making it a highly effective tool for flight and mission training. This level of fidelity ensures that pilots receive training that closely mirrors real-world flight conditions, enhancing their ability to prepare effectively in a wide range of scenarios.

The simulator's MR1 configuration is designed to replicate the specific systems and capabilities of the aircraft being used by our flight crews. This means that pilots and Senso operators can train on the exact equipment they will use in the field, like radar and Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) systems, allowing for a seamless transition between the simulator and real-world operational missions.

Moreover, the simulator can facilitate multi-crew training, allowing different team members to work together and practise coordination and communication in a realistic setting. This is especially important for roles that require teamwork and collaboration.

What are the wider benefits that the Training Centre will bring in terms of training efficiency, fidelity and customised mission training?

The Training Centre offers a wide array of benefits that significantly enhance training efficiency, fidelity, and customised mission training 360 days a year, without depending and impacting on helicopters and scenario/events availability. The major benefits are without any doubt cost savings, resource optimisation and long-term reliable planning and outcomes. Utilising simulators for training is more cost-effective than live exercises, as it reduces expenses related to fuel, maintenance, and wear and tear of equipment.

The training centre offers a comprehensive, inclusive training environment, from basic instruction to high fidelity degree of simulation. This means that the student is gradually but continuously led through the different phases and levels of training, up to the ones that closely mirror real-world conditions, ensuring that trainees experience scenarios with a level of realism that is essential for developing practical skills. The advanced simulator can generate customised training scenarios that replicate the exact conditions and challenges that personnel may encounter during their missions. Trainees can repeatedly practise specific scenarios and missions in a controlled environment, allowing them to build expertise and confidence. This is particularly important for challenging complex and critical missions and enhancing safety in risk mitigation.

Through the training centre, personnel can maintain a high state of readiness, ensuring that they are fully prepared to respond to various mission profiles and scenarios.

In conclusion, these advantages contribute to safer, more cost-effective, and highly effective training programmes, ultimately ensuring that personnel are better prepared to meet the demands of their operational missions.

The NH90 is Europe’s largest helicopter programme and the Italian Navy is at the forefront of its operation. How do you reflect on the contribution of the NH90 to the Italian Navy since 2011 and looking to the future, what role will the NH90 continue to play in meeting the operational requirements of the Italian Navy?

Since 2011, the Italian Navy has received 46 SH-90A (NH-90 NFH variant) helicopters optimised for Anti-Submarine and Anti-Ship operations, and 10 MH-90A (NH-90 TTH variant modified for the navy) helicopters optimised for tactical transport, special and amphibious operations. The joint venture with other European partners was part of the Italian Navy’s modernisation plans to cope with the ever-evolving range of mission requirements and operational scenarios by deploying the most advanced technology available today. As one of the type’s largest operators on 29th September, 2023, the Italian Navy achieved a major rotorcraft capability enhancement milestone with the completion of deliveries of its NH90 helicopters and a dedicated simulator and training centre for NH90 crews. The complexity of the geopolitical situation, involving joint multi-domain operations, requires multi-role helicopters and crews capable of providing superior operational flexibility and delivering a high level of mission effectiveness without compromising flight safety requirements. For these reasons, the Italian Navy is investing in training and technology to face future challenges. The plans will include a complete upgrade of the SH/MH-90A avionics (SWR 3 upgrade) and the potential for the full crew simulation training centre to be integrated with other nations' simulators and to be open to the possibility of exchanging training with other NATO partners. To date, considering the proven battlefield performance and reliability of this SH/MH-90A helicopter, we can surely confirm that it will fulfil the requirements to support the full spectrum of the Italian Navy's present and future operations.

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