NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Without a fiscal year 2017 budget in place, the Navy will delay a service life extension plan necessary to fly its Sikorsky MH-60R/S Seahawk helicopters into the 2040s when they are replaced by a next-generation vertical-lift platform.

Plans are to begin a service-life assessment program for the MH-60S in the current fiscal year, but without a defense authorization bill, the four-year process will not begin until at least fiscal 2018, according to Capt. Craig Grubb, director of the Navy’s multimission helicopter program office.

“It has no started because we have a mark from Congress on this effort, so we’re on hold currently with the budget situation,” Grubb said April 3 at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space conference in National Harbor, Md. “We can start pretty much right away. We already have been working the proposed activity with Sikorsky to get us started as soon as possible. When we get funding we can actually proceed with getting on contract.”

Sikorsky is a business unit of Lockheed Martin [LMT].

This late in fiscal year 2017, Grubb said more than likely the effort will begin in 2018 with or without a funding bill. Congress also has proposed cutting some funding from the program, he said. Factoring in contract lead time, the initial service life assessment program (SLAP) probably will not begin until early calendar year 2018, he said.

An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Brianna Bowens/Released)
An MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Brianna Bowens/Released)

An analysis of MH-60R and what those aircraft will need to fly until the 2040s should begin in fiscal 2020, he said.

“This is to make sure the aircraft can achieve the 10,000 hours they were designed for or possibly more beyond that,” Grubb said.

Already, the MH-60S is showing signs that it is in need of retooling to achieve its prescribed service life because its fuselage and other elements are based on legacy A- and B-model H-60s, Grubb said. The Navy is less worried about the MH-60R because it is similar to the H-60 structure the Navy has previously maintained.

“Even there we are concerned because it is operating at much higher gross weights than we have with previous aircraft,” he said.

During the respective SLAP efforts, the Navy will study the structural health of each variant and then determine what fixes or retrofits are needed to keep the fleets flying to and through their 10,000-hour service lives.

“We get a full view of how we keep the helicopter flying without cracking, without breaking longer, but then also how we support the helicopter from a subsystem level as we go forward,” he said.

Once the required scope of work is determined, engineers take the information and over three or four years design retrofits and fixes for the airframes to ensure they are able to fly at least 10,000 hours. The work will be actually be done during the follow-on service life extension programs (SLEP) that involves installing kits designed during the second SLAP phase.

“Those kits could be titanium braces that we put in the helicopter,” he said. “They could be less-intrusive than that. It could be wiring that goes in there. It could be generators, could be hydraulics. It’s all dependent on what the results of the SLAP are.”

To determine the scope of work, the Navy will tear down two MH-60S helicopters with some input from Lockheed. Grubb said the Navy is expecting the aircraft to require fairly dramatic overhauls to keep them viable through the 2040s. To save time and money, the Navy plans to do mid-life upgrades to avionics and other subsystems when the aircraft undergo SLEP.

“It will be likely, largely intrusive – whether it’s aircraft structure, whether it’s electrical systems, those kinds of things that need to be done,” he said. “The aircraft is going to take a fairly significant rework effort to incorporate whatever SLAP it has.”