The Plan-B Option

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HMAS Canberra during Operation Fiji Assist (Royal Australian Navy).

The next time you see one of the Canberra-Class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs), do me a favour – put your hand up so that you can’t see the ship’s ski-ramp, mounted on top of the bow.

With your hand still up, now look at the remainder of the ship, and consider the potential for developing 27,000 tonnes of Royal Australian Navy ship without an F-35B.

 

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Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II during sea trials (US Marine Corps)

 

When looking at the Royal Australian Navy’s two LHDs, air power circles often speculate on what could be – a return to Australia having a carrier-based fixed-wing strike capability, something gone since the decommissioning of HMAS Melbourne in 1983. The F-35B debate returned over the recent Christmas and New Year period with the Williams Foundation’s Central Blue Blog posting this piece arguing the flexibility benefits for Australia acquiring F-35Bs, pointing to the operational flexibility it offers and successful sea trials for the type with the United States Marine Corps. Central Blue followed it up with this post on the same topic, arguing an LHD could project strike aircraft missions for Operation Okra in the Middle East with greater effect, instead of the current solution of using land-based F/A-18s – something which requires the consent and support of a Host Nations.

I respect that some people have strong, well-informed opinions forged on this topic. Such views are often backed up by years of academic and firsthand experience in the field. The trouble is, it’s a debate that prioritises some facts and ignores others; the capability is fiscally and strategically never going to happen for Australia; and it’s preventing us from having a reasoned discussion about the potential of these ships.

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HMAS Adelaide (Defence) 

Let’s take the Operation Okra case. From information on the Defence website, the presently-deployed Australian Hornets fly sorties of over seven hours to the skies of Iraq and Syria, partly on account of long transit times from their land bases. What’s more, they need a Host Nation agreement to provide a land base. A Canberra-Class LHD in the Gulf could launch F-35Bs much closer to the frontline, allowing them more time over the target, and without the sensitivities that Host Nations may attract.

The argument is flawed. Carrier aviation is an inherently expensive capability to support, regardless of where it is based, and yet still requires air-to-air refuelling to sustain a presence over the Middle East. Australia’s own land-based KC-30A routinely refuels French Navy Rafales and American Hornets and Super Hornets. What’s more, the cooperation of Host Nations is critical to Operation Okra, whether an LHD was deployed in theatre or not. Beyond the Hornets and KC-30A, the Operation Okra air power contribution includes an E-7A Wedgetail providing airspace surveillance, a Combined Air Operations Centre, and Air Battlespace Managers. Supporting this are C-130J Hercules and C-17A Globemaster providing logistics support for Australian Defence Force units deployed throughout the Middle East. The total Australian contribution in theatre would not be possible without Host Nation support.

Adding an LHD to the mix would raise the logistics and personnel overhead above the air power effect that is already being achieved for a period of six months – remembering that ships need to be rotated through sustained deployments.

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Bombed up – a United States Marine Corps F-35B during sea trials (United States Navy)

Moving out of the current operations in the Middle East, we can only speculate about the environments in which we might need such a capability. In order to meet these scenarios, the ADF must embark on a number of programs. The 2016 Defence White Paper stressed the importance of Australia’s maritime environment within the Indo-Pacific. The trouble is, Australia’s strategic forecast between now and 2035 makes no stated requirement for embarking fixed-wing carrier-based strike aircraft, and there’s a lot of capabilities that it does state as a priority. Prominently featured are an increased submarine fleet, greater maritime surveillance capability, and a priority on upgrading airfield infrastructure on our coast. All of these capabilities carry fiscal, personnel and planning commitments that largely preclude any consideration for equipping the LHDs with F-35Bs.

Whilst future Governments and Defence leaders reserve the right to change our nation’s strategic planning trajectory in future White Papers, the evidence is that the appetite to do so just doesn’t exist – or the budget, for that matter. The capability does not come cheaply with the F-35B being more expensive than the F-35A variant, even before you take it to sea. The LHDs would require significant works to operate STOVL aircraft in any effective fashion, and doing so would  take them away from their primary purpose – providing an amphibious and sealift support capability for the Australian Army.

HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide aren’t just floating real estate – they’re a major part of how Defence plans to deploy on operations in future. Bringing Army into the amphibious space has required no small shift in capability and doctrine (laid out in Plan Beersheba) to capitalise on the full potential of the LHDs. Its emphasis on amphibious operations is now being demonstrated and rehearsed annually via Defence exercises. Equipping these ships with F-35Bs, arguing that the strategic priorities and planning of the type’s current operators (the United States and United Kingdom) represents a misreading of the scope and capability of our vessels.

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2RAR Australian Army personnely during a May 2016 exercise (Defence)

Debating the point that LHDs should be optimised for F-35B operations is like making the case for Army to give up space at a barracks (or move out entirely) so that you can build an airfield on that land instead, especially when suitable alternatives exist. What’s worse, the debate is ignorant of how the Army might deploy its forces in future, having itself just restructured for such a purpose. Turning both LHDs into an F-35B carrier would not only take money to pay for the conversion, it would also require a replacement sealift and amphibious capability for the Army. That money could be spent on a host of other competing priorities that would provide great benefit to Defence, whether it be in the realm of cybersecurity, satellite communications bandwidth, infrastructure, or host of other programs – many of them nominated in the White Paper. Were Defence to take a shortcut to this capability – modifying one LHD and not the other, or equipping LHDs for F-35Bs and amphibious/sealift missions, for example – it would yield a poor compromise for sustaining air power and land forces alike.

Arguing the case for Australian to operate F-35Bs from LHDs undersells the significant capability increase these ships already provide. For the first time in recent memory, the Royal Australian Navy is capable carrying and sustaining an amphibious operation far in excess of what has been capable before – a sealift vessel the likes of which haven’t been enjoyed since, ironically, HMAS Sydney during the days of the Vung Tau Ferry. Once in location, the ships can operate as a deployed base and tranfer its load to shore by landing craft and rotary-wing. These vessels are effectively Navy’s equivalent of Air Force’s C-17A, but potentially far more versatile in its domain.

The ‘F-35Bs for Australia’ debate is a useful tool for getting people to think and speak about Australia’s security and Defence priorities in a maritime context. In my opinion, that’s about where its validity ends. With the United States Marine Corps to base F-35Bs into the Asia Pacific region this year, it’s hardly going to be the last time we hear about this issue. But by focusing entirely on the wrong part of LHD, we’re driving attention away from how they could be conducting their role into the future. There’s significant challenges in Australia’s security environment that include humanitarian assistance and disaster relief events, a commitment to continue useful regional engagement, and peacekeeping. Such scenarios have a great likelihood of occurring, considering the ADF’s operational experience of the past 15 years, from East Timor, Sumatra and the Solomon Islands; to Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. These are all operational theatres where the LHDs could make a considerable positive difference.

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HMAS Canberra during RIMPAC 2016 (Royal Australian Navy)

For the air power community, the focus on the LHDs needs to move past the F-35B, and to concentrate on the effects the ships are likely required to deliver in their lifetime. New rotorcraft for the ADF may allow it to better support operations ashore or at sea, a growth path that could see it embark remotely piloted aircraft. We may see it embark a high-speed long-range rotorcraft as a means of projecting ground forces deeper inland, or from greater distances at sea. Aviation may not even be the major growth area for these ships, and their development instead concentrated on the capacity to support C4I or other battlespace networking functions. Or the real estate on the LHDs might be capitalised in some other capacity unknown to us yet.

The discussion that we need to have now isn’t so much “What argument will justify acquiring F-35Bs for the LHDs”, but rather, “What unrealised potential do these ships have in their current role?” Because, hard as it is to imagine, it may not even involve an aircraft.

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About eamonh

Air Mobility enthusiast and Star Wars fancier. All writings my own opinions and not those of my employers or associates.
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11 Responses to The Plan-B Option

  1. Dick says:

    You say acquiring F-35B will take away the army space, no the well deck and vehicle garage will not magically disappear because the F-35B was embarked, nor will somehow army capability disappear – in actual fact it will be increased with the capability the F-35B brings! And for the record just because we may be able to acquire F-35B does not mean they will always be aboard, it really depends on the mission does it not? Cyclone / disaster relief, humanitarian, army ferry purposes, rotary only requirements etc…

    You appear to think that the LHD has only one mission – embarking army – that is a major limitation in your thinking right there – you are not exploiting the vessels flexibility and capability at all. The ADF needs to be able to respond to a whole series of threat scenarios – some of which may not even require army embarkation or the embarkation of F-35B. By saying the boats are purely for army – you limit the utility of these otherwise very capable boats and what they can bring to Defence as a whole.

    You say put your hand over the ski jump but disregard the flight deck completely as if it were a decoration? Have you looked at what is being presently embarked for flight ops? Army CH-47F helicopters that cannot be stowed in the hangar, cannot fold their blades on the ship unless in port and take half the day to fold or unfold rotors, just how much flight deck space do think 2 to 4 Chinooks will take up on the flight deck with their unfolded rotors? MRH-90 that take 25 minutes just to fold or unfold their blades manually, is that how you think army capability will be enhanced? When a digger calls for air support what will be the answer? (I say chaps – can you stop the bullets for a minute as our Tigers are AWOL and we are waiting on F-35A which were promised to us 2 hours ago – there’s a good sport!) You have no comprehension of what a patent & latent disaster our current rotary fleet is for embarked operations… the CH-47F are excellent for land based operations but are just not built for embarked operations. The MRH-90 is a reforming disaster and the ARH Tigers are a complete basket case. Yet you do not believe F-35B will enhance army capability???

    What is the reason you do not think F-35B is relevant for the army? It is probably the most lethal machine the army can depend on in a hot war yet. Are you reluctant on the idea because you fear it will be operated by navy? What if the airforce were to operate them? Would you change your mind? Do you know the F-35B is not only capable of operating from the LHD’s but from land as well, next to the F-35A as well as from austere semi prepared forward operating locations much closer to the army than the F-35A yet you do not discuss this?

    The beloved White Paper you so rely on states that we wish to acquire 100 JSF in total does it not??? What would be so wrong to order a batch of F-35B in that 100 purchase? We have the LHDs already – where is the problem? You can still load the boats with 100% army if required for the mission and threat scenario, or you can mix and match as required, heaven forbid yes they can also act only as aircraft carriers if required, and the F-35B can also fly from every airforce base, but it can also fly from forward austere semi prepared locations as well as the LHD’s which the F-35A cannot. it could even probably land on an Frigate, container ship, or HMAS Choules in an emergency – try doing that in an F-35A! And you are certainly no Star Wars fan if you cannot recognise the T-65B “X wing” star fighter as the real life F-35B – it even has partially same designation and can land and take off vertically…

    • eamonh says:

      I’ll tackle the Star Wars point first. You raise a very valid point equating the F-35B with the X-Wing in the VTOL domain – it’s a very flexible design solution. I should also point out that almost every time we see the X-Wings launched on a mission during the films, it’s from a land base. They have the capacity to operate from starships (as they launch for the Battle of Endor), however Rebel doctrine (or cinematic convenience) favours them being operated from land. Hyperdrive gives them the range to operate from a hardened base with a greater logistics and support footprint than embarked operations on a capital ship could hope to accomplish. Their VTOL & expeditionary talents are largely exploited when Luke goes AWOL on his religious quest – thus I hope a prospective F-35B workforce doesn’t take a similar liberty with a $100+ million aircraft.

      I could spend all day arguing your points, but the reality is, it would be a distraction from exactly the kind of discussion I’m trying to initiate. My argument is that these vessels have an air power application (I don’t understand why you accuse me of not knowing the LHDs have a flight deck) that should be considered in view of their primary role – conducting amphibious operations. I just think the pro-B model lobby doesn’t quite grasps the reality of how the ADF goes to war now in that environment (and I’m by no means an expert). My observation is that those in favour of the F-35B consistently build scenarios that fit their acquisition, rather than accept the current operating environment and the ADF’s existing/planned capabilities. If you’re telling me the future of CAS in a lightly contested amphibious environment can only be solved by the ADF acquiring F-35Bs, then I’d like to see how you’re going to pay for it and sustain that capability. It’s not as simple as changing an A to B, as some would have you think.

  2. Josh says:

    Eamon, you make many incorrect assumptions and present opinion as fact. You are not a combatant, nor a student in the profession of arms, and frankly are not credible.

  3. Dick says:

    Well Eamon you can rest easily as you are certainly in good company. When our former prime minister “opened the Defence cheque book” and suggested Defence purchase the F-35B for use on the LHD’s, the defence chiefs proverbially looked the gift horse in the eye and said “no thank you very much, we had lunch already”.

    The present chief of the defence force who is an ex chief of the air force, fighter combat instructor and ex naval aviator (fast air), and the current chief of navy who is an ex naval aviator (rotary) appear to agree whole heartedly with you, the LHD’s should have no viable embarked aviation capability (as that is what we have at moment and going into the foreseeable future) as you say it is a major distraction to army. The flight deck and aircraft hangar should be used for playing cricket, fire arms practise stores and conducting VIP tours with the odd excursion for cyclone relief.

    Re Star Wars – did I not emphasise the F-35B can operate from land just as well, not exactly Yoda’s swamp scene on Degobah but certainly “off the map”, you may be pleased to know that if we were to ever acquire the jet they would likely spend most of their time in fact at shore establishments (air bases) and to lesser extent at forward operating locations (in fact they could probably operate just as well from my local Westfield car park) and with the LHDs; the simulators are so good these days they do not need a double seat F-35 for training.

    But lets make this a constructive debate, in your conclusion you say “What unrealised potential do these ships have in their current role?” Because, hard as it is to imagine, it may not even involve an aircraft.” what types of items for these boats would you advocate we acquire in lieu of the hundreds of million dollars you would save by not acquiring F-35B and buying F-35A instead?

    • eamonh says:

      What’s the future of these ships? In all honesty, i don’t know, and should probably leave that question to he experts (which Josh so aptly pointed out, I am not). My problem with the F-35B debate is that it seems to occupy an inordinately large amount of the discussion space when it comes to the future of these ships, and it’s something that’s highly unlikely to come to pass – my challenge is to consider what other technologies (whether they be air power orientated or other) would be useful on these ships.

      So yeah, I’m giving you a cop-out response, but my point still stands

      I should add – I don’t carry any personal grudge against the F-35B. In spite of the development troubles, I think it’s an amazing jet. I just don’t think it’s the right fit for us.

      Thanks for the replies – I do agree with many of the points you bring up!

  4. Amicus Curiae says:

    Sorry Dick, there is a serious volume and weight penalty to be paid for embarking F-35Bs on any ship, even if you keep them on deck. Yes, it is stupid to store $200 million dollar jets out in the open, but I digress. Have these ships been designed to house fuel and weapons for jets? For example, each combat sortie of an F-35 needs at least 14000 lbs (2150 gallons, 290 cubic feet), 2 x laser guided 1000 lb bombs and 2 x AIM-120 missiles. The fuel alone to launch one 4 jet strike will overflow a 10x10x10 ft tank. How many weapons can be stored on a small ship? It won’t be many days worth. Special facilities must exist to accommodate these weapons. The maintenance space and spares requirement for F-35Bs can’t be negligible. If maintenance facilities are lacking, you won’t get many sorties before the jets are un-serviceable. Don’t you need some space for Air ops command and control? Sustained operation of F-35Bs from any ship not purpose designed (modified) to support them can not be done. Obviously, the ship is dedicated to jet air operations and can not be “converted” to amphibious assault in an afternoon. If the scenario you have in your head is that these silver bullets will make the war last only one day, I guess all your arguments are plausible.

  5. Dick says:

    “Have these ships been designed to house fuel and weapons for jets?”

    My goodness! its like asking whether a car has been designed to have wheels and a petrol tank?

    The LHD’s are stock standard Spanish “Juan Carlos class” aircraft carriers / amphibious assault boats. Think of it this way (very simplified) the top one third of the ship is all purpose aircraft carrier (flight deck and aircraft hangar and aircraft maintenance), the middle third is all purpose amphibious assault (vehicle garages and well deck) and the bottom third is typically fuel tanks, munitions magazine and engines.

    They were designed at the outset to operate Spanish Navy AV-8B Harrier jets and eventually the F-35B. They have specially dedicated aviation weapons magazines and dedicated weapons lifts and dedicated aviation fuel tanks deep in the hull to support jets, we did not rip out the aviation fuel tanks and weapons magazines, nor did we remove the ski jump. What did you think the ski jump was used for launching if not jets?

    All we did to the boats were cosmetic changes such as not specifying the jet landing aids such as HIHAT (a hover landing aid set of lights used for Harriers and the F-35B) and the like, replacing Spanish license produced Marmite with Vegemite in the galley and a translating Spanish manuals / instructions and signs into English.

    Moreover, all boats run out of fuel, stores and ammunition eventually and this why navies have replenishment ships which can resupply the boat with everything needed, fuel, avgas, munitions, Mars bars and such like while boats are underway that way the LHD or frigate does not have to leave its tactical area of operations.

    F-35B being a weight penalty – my goodness that’s first time I have heard that one! Do you realize how much the LHD weigh in at already a few extra tons of stealth will not affect the performance of these boats – besides they were as I already outlined above designed to carry the jets and the aviation fuel and the stores so there is no serious trade off to contemplate! It is not like adding weight to an aircraft which can be a serious matter if it were not designed to take it.

    Have a look at David Baddams (Ex RAN and Royal Navy FAA fighter pilot) article submitted for the Defence White Paper:

    http://www.defence.gov.au/Whitepaper/docs/082-Baddams.pdf

    and Steve George’s (Ex Royal Navy FAA engineer and someone that actually worked on the F-35B program unlike the critics) papers online addressing all the F-35B/LHD myths.

    http://centralblue.williamsfoundation.org.au/putting-f-35b-on-the-canberra-class-lhds-the-debate-continues-steve-george/

    Mind you these two very experienced and very knowledgeable chaps have one shortcoming they typically only concentrate on the benefits of embarking the F-35B aboard the LHD (so its only about F-35B on LHD), which is why I think Eamon got fed up with it in first place), this I think scares off most of the air force types in the first place as they think its somehow a threat to the air force’s monopoly on operating “fast air” which it is not by the way, as I would happily see the F-35B operated by air force only or navy or both like the UK will – hell I would not even mind even if it said army on it 🙂 I really do not care who operates it as long as we acquire it for the ADF.

    My view on the other hand is that there is much more to the F-35B than just operating it off the LHD’s and this is the part that irritates me the most, as non of the critics really touch on this when they say we should not purchase it over the F-35A – this jet has the ability to operate from so many more land based locations whether they be airbases, forward semi prepared “austere” locations, car parks, highways etc… than normal conventional jets like the F-16, F-15, F-18 and F-35A can ever hope to operate from. It really is a game changer.

    For example lets say for arguments sake a strike by an enemy damages the main runway and taxi strips of a main air base where we operate the F/A-18F (and eventually the F-35A); this jet (the F-35B) either has the ability to take off vertically and relocate to another safe location or take off in a very short distance with a weapons load and be straight into action; where as all our other conventional jets would be out of action until our runways and taxiways are fixed (not a simple task as quite often the enemy drops delayed munitions or mines to stop repairs in their tracks for hours if not days, meanwhile those lovely expensive “sitting ducks” the immobilised F/A-18F & F-35A cannot take to the air and defend the airspace and start to be picked off one by one) – and no one talks about this unique capability, that only the F-35B brings to the table in the whole debate on whether or not to purchase the jet! As an added bonus it can also operate from the LHD’s which cannot be a bad thing 🙂

    This is why I equated it to the Star Wars T-65B X-wing, it really is light years ahead of conventional jets; and Eamon I was wrong about you not being a Star Wars fan – its just that you appeared a little rusty on your recognition charts! BTW I have a separate gripe about why the RAAF never capitalized on the C-130J investment and acquired more Herks in the form of KC-130Js, MC-130J or the AC-130J but that debate for another time!

    Another thing that all the critics of the F-35B / LHD miss completely, is that not one has any comprehension of how serious a mess we are in with the rotary inventory that we plan to operate from the LHD’s, they see a Chinook, or MRH-90 on the LHD and think like the “proverbial peasant” that it is very impressive. It may be impressive to the uneducated but there are very serious problems beneath the surface as they are not designed for maritime operations and some like the MRH-90 and ARH Tiger even have inherent flaws which may not ever be fixed. It is like trying to shoehorn something to make it fit rather than buying something in the first place that fits already! I suppose this was always going to be a problem as the egg came before the chicken (ie in our instance the helicopters were purchased before the LHD’s).

    Anyway I appreciate we all have different views – which is a good thing as everyone thinking alike does not make an interesting world! Apologies for the long reply – and I will leave the debate to let others express their views be they for or against the F-35B!

    Cheers

  6. Robert Henderson says:

    Wouldn’t normally reply to someone hiding behind a silly name, but this clanger cannot go without rebuttal….. “Yes, it is stupid to store $200 million dollar jets out in the open, but I digress. ”

    No, it is not stupid to park F-35Bs on deck for prolonged periods, exposed to wx and all the oggin’s nastiest of elements.

    They are are specifically conceived, design and built to do just that and, indeed, will be doing just that in service of with confirmed operators.

    That’s the difference between marinised a/c and the MRH-90s, Chooks and Tigers: the only LHD-suitable helo in ADF ORBAT is Romeo.

    That howler sets the tone of ‘facts’ in the rest AC’s piece.

    BTW Dick, since Baddams filed that DWP submission he did time at sea as air boss in ADELAIDE during contractors’ trials. That’ son top of running ground-based air for CANBERRA a year before that.

    Poor bugger clearly has no idea about the ships or how to operate and embarked air group for the DoD and contractors to pay him for that work, right? (wink, joke)

  7. Dick says:

    Hi Robert, yes I think we should make the critics so sick of the pro F-35B / ADF argument that they just ‘keel over” and the ADF can finally say “BRAVO” to the last 28 JSF without a critic so much as saying a “peep”. I trust Baddams being on the Defence payroll as a contractor has not mellowed his view on the matter as (to keep the Star Wars theme alive) many have gone to the “dark side” when they become dependant on the payroll of their “master” and hence become reluctant to criticise the hand that feeds them! Look at our Defence Force Chiefs for example unanimous silence on the matter even when Abbott flashed the F-35B cheque book and said how many would you like? And here I was thinking it was supposed to be the other way round i.e. Defence Chiefs begging for dollars to spend on JSF… talk about an epic fail, we can excuse the Army chief as he was as an ex chicken strangler and was taught to make do with anything in the bush but the others my goodness ex naval aviators and even an FCI – where did we go so wrong?

  8. Dick says:

    And right on cue (which may, or may not be a response to our comments about the LHD not having a viable air wing), Navy has released the following news regarding AMAFTU activities for the new year. (Lets see if the critics equally apply their zest to rubbish the MH-60R on LHD and wait for it vertical take off landing trials on the LHD [the critics will have an absolute “fit” here as it is VTOL] as they do towards rubbishing the F-35B / LHD. After all if its not Army it cannot be on the ship as it is a distraction and just stupid and too expensive, oh and look just when I mentioned F-35B landing on HMAS Choules, navy is in to lily padding with MRH-90:

    ” Aviation trials on track throughout Fleet
    Published on 16 January 2017 Ms Natalie Staples (author)

    In late February, the Romeo team move onto HMAS Canberra and join their Tiger and MRH-90 compatriots to continue the Landing Helicopter Dock first of class trial.

    “From February to April, we’ll have the Eurocopter Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter ARH, MRH-90 and MH-60R all onboard the Canberra class ambhibious ships conducting first of class flight trials,” Commander Hutchinson said.

    “Mid-year, the MRH-90 will conduct first of class flight trials in the Anzac class and in August we’ll have the unmanned aerial systems on the Adelaide class to conduct vertical take offs and landing trials.

    “Finally in September we’ll run first of class flight trials on the EC-135 T2+, the new military training helicopter that will replace the Squirrel,” Commander Hutchinson said.

    “We’re at the coal face of Navy working to becoming a more agile, integrated network and potent force.”

    Each first of class flight trial is unique, which Commander Hutchinson said keeps the unit on their toes.

    “Navy hasn’t got any experience with vertical take off and landing, so the unmanned aerial systems trials in August will be valuable. We aren’t walking into it thinking it will be a box ticking exercise. We’ve also never taken a Tiger helicopter to sea before,” he said.

    “For the Romeos we’re expanding on the ship helicopter operating limits they have at the moment and we’re looking to provide a lily pad capability for the MRH-90 on the Anzac class,” Commander Hutchinson said.”

    From: http://news.navy.gov.au/en/Jan2017/Fleet/3456/Aviation-trials-on-track-throughout-Fleet.htm#.WH9NP0sTHwI

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