Task Force ‘Fenice’ the helicopter component of the Esercito Italiano (Italian Army) in Afghanistan — received a boost to its capabilities last year from a new operational unit, Squadrone NH90 (NH90 Company). It brought into theatre the army’s newest helicopter, the NH90.
The decision to deploy the NH90 dated back to spring 2011, when it was necessary to deploy an effective replacement for the Italian Navy’s AW101 helicopters. ThevAW101s were reaching the end of their deployment and various substitutes were able to fulfil the same missions, namely combat support, combat service support (CSS) and medical evacuation.
The options were to return the old but reliable AB205 or deploy the new NH90, which was already working well in Italy, having logged more than 4,000 flying hours with no particular problems. The decision was taken to deploy five NH90s and the preparation phase quickly began involving the crews, aircraft and the all-important logistical support.
The army signed a new logistics support contract with NHIndustries, covering all the activity necessary in the theatre such as a larger supply of spare parts and the presence of a NHIndustry representative at Herat, the Task Force’s base in Afghanistan, who would assist military maintenance personnel.
The decision to deploy the NH90 also accelerated the rate of the helicopter’s development. Systems originally planned for 2013 were introduced at the start of 2012. Modifications included a new mode called Criptos, for the radios, and a new software release (Configuration 3) for the night-vision system integrated in the helmet-mounted display (HMD) helmets. The helicopters that received the deployment upgrades were designated ‘Additional IOC+’ and differ from the FOC (full operational capability) — the latter also having the SICRAL Italian satellite radios and the Link 16 datalink system.
Most flying crews selected for deployment already had experience in Afghanistan operations on other helicopters and were expert in the specific local environment and procedures. A typical NH90 crew was composed of two pilots and one or two flight engineers.
However, the integration of two 7.62mm Oto Melara/Dillon M134D Gatling guns, with a rate of fire of 3,000 rounds per minute, fitted to a retractable pintle-mount at the side doors, prompted the integration of a new crew member — the gunner. The additional personnel were drawn from soldier and sergeant ranks and were qualified for NH90 operations in dedicated firing sessions at the Capo Teulada range in Sardinia. The personnel were selected and divided into five flight teams before deployment in theatre for three months.
The first two teams started crew-level training in October 2011, before undertaking an exercise at company level the following month. A third training phase dedicated to mountain flying was held in December 2011 at Bolzano and Dobbiaco in the Italian Alps. The fourth phase, final validation, took place on the range at Monte Romano, north-west of Rome, in March 2012. The first team was originally due to leave Italy in May 2012, but electronic warfare system (EWS) additions to the NH90 were not ready and the certification to load and transport the NH90 inside the US Air Force C-17A was yet to be completed, Comando AVES (Italian Army Aviation Command), taking advantage of part of the work already carried out by the Australian Army on the same type, provided the US Air Force with all the data required to enable the certification that was received during the second quarter. Five C-17A flights were booked to transport the NH90 quintet to Afghanistan.
Task Unit Nemo
The helicopters were prepared for the transport by the 2° Rgt di Sostegno ‘Orione’ (2nd Maintenance Rgt) at Bologna Borgo Panigale, and on August 4, 2012, the first contingent of personnel left Italy. The first NH90 arrived at Herat on August 18, and in two days was reassembled and ready to fly, marking the start of the initial operational capability period. Further helicopters were delivered on August 29, September 16, 19 and 22, and Nemo’s full operational capability was reached on September 25 when the fifth and last machine carried out its first flight in theatre.
During the IOC period, air crews concentrated their activity on area familiarisation, flying reconnaissance missions day and night, and performing take offs and landings in all conditions at the various bases of the Regional Command West (RC-West), to which they would be committed. The unit, numbering some 40 personnel, received the designation ‘Task Force Nemo’, restoring the tradition of the L-18 light aircraft unit of the 1960s.
The unit was allocated the call sign ‘Mambo’, also formerly used by an Italian Army Aviation unit.
The typical employment of Task Force Nemo assets in theatre is based on two NH90s being ready to fly at any moment, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. A third machine is held as a reserve in case of problems on one of the others and the remaining two are subject to maintenance activities. The helicopters are rotated as necessary.
At the start of the deployment Task Force Nemo agreed to provide some 60 hours per month to the RC-West, but since January 1, 2013, the hours have increased to 80 per month. Usually the NH90s operate in pairs in CSS missions, which is the transportation of personnel between the bases of the RC-West (combat support is the transportation of troops in the areas of operations).
In some cases the NH90s fly in ) pairs with other types such as the A129 Mangusta or the CH-47, according to the mission needs. For security reasons, the precise details of the activity undertaken in Afghanistan remain unknown, but the NH90 has been involved in anti-insurgent operations undertaken by special forces, with two NH90s operating in a package alongside two CH-47 (to transport the troops) and four A129 (tasked with controlling and keeping safe the area of operations).
The NH90s deployed in Afghanistan will remain in theatre until the end of the Italian involvement in International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations in the country. This is not just because the helicopter is well-suited to the operations, but because movement of them and their logistical support back and forth from Italy for short periods is too expensive. Just one machine, used more intensively than the others, will be sent back to Italy when it reaches 300 flying hours in theatre. There engineers will assess airframe stress and and liaise with maintenance teams and the manufacturer on possible future improvements.
What’s the verdict on the NH90’s performance in theatre so far? “The machine goes well and gave no surprises at all,» says Lt Col Massimo Bonesi, chief of the Task Force Team NH90 in the Italian Army, and one of the first NH90 pilots deployed to Afghanistan. “With the NH90, pilots enjoy an excellent situational awareness (SA). They have no problems because, thanks to the automatic pilot and the on-board systems and equipment, the helicopter is easy to control. The pilot always knows where he is and where he is going.
The two pilots spend less time controlling the helicopter and concentrate much more on the observation of the terrain and controlling the mission.
The forward-looking infrared (FLIR), combined with the digital moving map system (the maps can be uploaded even before the mission, including the latest updates of the tactical situation) and the HMD, which shows the flying data on the pilots’ visors, gives the pilots not just greater SA but more self-confidence. “With the NH90 the crew is more confident,» Lt Col Bonesi told AIR International. “The worst situation, ‘brown out’ (when sand and dust cloud around the helicopter, during landing) is no more a reason of concern. The NH90 is extremely stable, and flies with the autopilot until five meters [15ft] above the ground. At that point, the pilot, who is always aware of the situation, thanks to the helmet symbology, can leave the machine in automatic hovering and wait until the visibility improves and then pass to the manual landing mode.»
The EWS self-protection system has not yet been tested in combat in Afghanistan, but its capability appears to match expectations. The Industries-developed system is composed of a control processor and a radar warning receiver developed by Thales and Cassidian, while the missile warning and the laser warning systems are provided by Elettronica. It is the same equipment used by AgustaWestland for the SIAP system integrated into the Italian Army’s A129, AB412, AB205 and CH-47.
In operational use, the NH90 pilots have been able to see that the parameters in the flight manual have matched perfectly the performance in the field.
It has been found that some 10-15% more loads can be carried in the helicopter than those published in the manual, which has given the pilots more confidence to load the machine to the allowed limits.
During the IOC phase, the NH90s were checked at an altitude of 7,500ft (2,270m) and temperatures of 26-30°C (equivalent to an altitude/ density of 11,000ft/3,330m). The highest temperatures have been recorded at Farah in western Afghanistan, with 45°C (113°F), and in this case, the parameters also appeared to equal those published in the manuals. At the other end of the temperature scale, before Christmas 2012, the NH90 operated with ground temperatures of about -12°/-15°C (10.4°/5°F) and about -20°C (-4°F) in flight with no problems, along with the electronic components and fly-by-wire controls. The NH90 is fitted with Have Quick radios, which enables them to be the sole Italian helicopter able to communicate directly with US forces aircraft.
The first few months of the NH90’s operational use in Afghanistan appears to be positive overall.
Credit should be given to the Italian Army Aviation Command for recognising the maturity of its NH90s in order to deploy it and gain precious experience in operating a fundamental component of its future rotary force. Such astuteness has allowed the Command to steal a lead on other NH90 operators who are late in reaching full operational capability with the helicopter.