Germany Receives First Sea Lion, but Awaits Sea Tiger Contract

 - October 30, 2019, 6:38 AM
The Sea Lion combines features of the TTH troop transport version with the marinized airframe of the NFH anti-submarine helicopter. (photo: Airbus Helicopters)

Speaking at an event to mark the delivery of the German Navy’s first Sea Lion helicopter at Donauwörth, Captain Thorsten Bobzin, the commander of the Marinefliegerkommando (German naval aviation), said that a contract for the new Sea Tiger is urgently required. Bobzin explained that contracts would need to be signed during the next 12 months to avoid a capability gap following the 2025 retirement of the Lynx.

Germany originally planned to replace both its Westland Sea King Mk 41s and its smaller Westland Lynx Mk 88s with a single multi-role embarked helicopter but abandoned this ambitious plan because the combined requirement for 30 of these helicopters was then deemed unaffordable.

Instead, the German Ministry of Defence decided to replace only the Sea Kings, ordering 18 NH90 NTH (Naval Transport Helicopter) Sea Lions in March 2013, at a reported cost of €1.4 billion ($1.56 billion). The aging Lynxes were retained and upgraded to Super Lynx standards. The Sea Lion will replace the existing fleet of Westland Sea King 41s, mostly for search-and-rescue (SAR), but also undertaking maritime reconnaissance, personnel, and cargo transport missions.

The Sea Lion will primarily be land-based but will also operate from Germany’s Type 702 (Berlin class) combat support ships. Although the Marineflieger has a stated total of 21 Sea Kings on charge, some have already been cannibalized for spare parts, and the in-service fleet is expected to reduce to 16 aircraft by the end of 2019. In March 2015, the order for 18 NH90 NFHs was formally announced, and the associated contract was signed in June 2015. Production of the aircraft began in December 2015.

The NH90 is produced in two basic forms: the Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) variant for land and expeditionary operations; and the NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) variant for maritime missions. A number of NFH sub-variants have been produced, and the German NTH is something of a hybrid, with the rear loading ramp of the TTH integrated in the marinized NFH airframe.

During summer 2019, Airbus Helicopters, the German Navy and the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support (BAAINBw) successfully completed demonstration flights verifying the Sea Lion’s search and rescue and special forces support capabilities. Airbus Helicopters delivered the first NH90 Sea Lion naval multi-role helicopter to the BAAINBw in October. This first Sea Lion was also, coincidentally, the 400th NH90 helicopter delivered. Two more Sea Lions are due to be delivered by year-end, and the BAAINBw will later transfer the aircraft to Marinefliegergeschwader 5 (MFG5) at Fliegerhorst Nordholz, which will eventually be equipped with 18 Sea Lions.

Initial Sea Lion deliveries are in a "step one" configuration but, from 2021, aircraft will be delivered to an enhanced "step two" standard, with improved Mode 5 IFF transponders. Deliveries are expected to be completed in 2022, and the last Sea Kings will be retired by 2023.

To replace the 22 surviving Sea Lynx Mk 88A helicopters in the shipboard anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare missions from 2024 (the so-called Sea Tiger requirement), the Marineflieger evaluated the Leonardo Helicopters AW159 Wildcat and the Sikorsky MH-60R, before eventually selecting the NH90. The NH90 was chosen due to fleet commonality considerations and timescale requirements, although it was said that all of the contenders met 80 percent of the requirements.

With NH90 logistics and training infrastructure already in place to support the Sea Lion, and with Germany’s armed forces also operating 72 TTH variants, the acquisition of additional examples proved too attractive to ignore, and selection of the NH90 to form the basis of the Sea Tiger was announced in August 2019.

The Sea Tiger will, therefore, be a version of the NH90 NFH provisionally designated as the NH90 MRFH (Mehrrollenfähiger Fregattenhubschrauber; multirole frigate helicopter). This is expected to be broadly similar to the French navy’s NH90 Caïman NFRN ASW helicopter, and there have been suggestions that Germany will not be able to add specific or additional capabilities.

The Marineflieger will acquire 31 helicopters under the Sea Tiger program, one for the Bundeswehr’s WTD test and evaluation unit and 30 for operational use, embarking two helicopters on each Type F124 (Sachsen class) and F125 (Baden-Württemberg class) frigates, and on the future MKS180 multirole combat ship. The four Type 123 ships (Brandenburg class) do not have space and equipment for handling two NFH-sized helicopters and will stop carrying helicopters when the last Lynxes are retired. The helicopters will provide the German Navy’s frigates with a vital sensor picture and will carry weapons for prosecuting engagements, as well as performing transport and rescue missions.