ROME — Amid concerns from NH90 customers about capabilities and delivery delays, the Italian Army has expressed satisfaction in the helicopter and dispatched two to Afghanistan, where they are flying from the Italian base in Herat.
The Army is planning to deploy four of its new helicopters to the rugged region by the end of September. Each aircraft will be transported individually on a C-17 airlifter — with its tail folded and rotors removed — from the Italian Army logistics center in Bologna.
“The first helicopter flew in Herat on Aug. 20, the day after it arrived, and we are seeing that in Afghan conditions, the NH90 is delivering performance 15 percent above what was envisaged,” said Army Aviation Commander Gen. Enzo Stefanini.
“The third will be there soon,” he added.
The helicopters, which will undergo test flights in Afghanistan this month, will perform tactical transport and medevac missions and replace the Army’s six AB205 helicopters, which will be pulled out of Herat by year end.
Before the deployment, the Italian Army tested the helicopter in high, dusty conditions in Logrono, Spain.
“The NH90 has a maximum range of 450 miles, compared to the AB205’s 250 miles, and can cover the whole Italian zone of operations, as well as a hospital we need to reach for medevac missions, which the AB205 could not,” Stefanini said.
Between crew and logistics staff, about 45 personnel will handle the aircraft in Herat, about 10 per NH90.
Including the aircraft sent to Afghanistan, the Italian Army has 20 NH90s, 14 of which are in Initial Operational Capability (IOC) Plus Enhanced format.
The aircraft offer digital mapping, armor, self-protection suite including flares, satellite communication, encrypted radio and two pintle-mounted M134D guns, and are certified to operate with the rear ramp open in flight.
Still to come are Link 16, “which is required more for a high-intensity, symmetrical conflict,” Stefanini said, and laser obstacle avoidance monitoring capability, “which is not essential in Afghanistan.”
Six of the 20 aircraft delivered are still in plain IOC format and are now being redelivered to AgustaWestland for upgrading.
Four deliveries are expected this year, with six to follow in 2013 and eight in 2014, with the full order of 60 to be filled by 2016.
“From the 25th delivery, we will receive FOC [full operational capability] versions, but that is not a priority for Afghanistan,” Stefanini said.
The Italian Navy is meanwhile ordering 46 NH90s for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare missions and 10 in a tactical transport helicopter navalized version for amphibious and special operations support duties.
The Italian Army’s NH90s are late. In 2008, planners expected the FOC versions to start arriving by the end of 2009. In 2009, they were expected by the start of 2011.
Certification holdups and technical difficulties have slowed the international program to the extent that Sweden ordered 15 Black Hawks last year as a gap filler. Norway should have received eight maritime versions six years ago but has received only one and recently threatened to reconsider its order if it does not see more deliveries by year’s end.
Portugal is negotiating the suspension of its order for 10 tactical transport versions, largely for budgetary reasons.
But even though Italy has had to return helicopters for upgrades, Stefanini appeared satisfied with the pace of deliveries.
“We have now flown 5,000 hours, more than other users, and we are in Afghanistan,” he said.
Stefanini added that he was happy with the aircraft’s capabilities.
“We understood the capability on offer, and it met our needs; it was what we wanted,” he said.
The Italian Army NH90s are due to be deployed at Casarsa and Rimini, home bases of the Army’s Air Brigade, and at Viterbo, where they are used for Army special operations training. Bologna hosts a logistics base. Bologna and Viterbo now have dedicated NH90 hangars, while a similar hangar is being completed at Rimini.
The Army lost one NH90 in a crash at Lake Bracciano in Italy in June 2008, and the pilot was killed. The incident has now been attributed to “human and environmental factors.”
The new aircraft in Herat are flying alongside six Italian Chinooks, part of a CH-47 fleet now due for replacement by 16 CH-47F helicopters ordered in 2009.
“The first flight of the first new Chinook will take place this year, and we expect the first delivery in the first half of 2013, with a delivery rate of two a year,” Stefanini said.
Also based at Herat are Italian AW129 Mangusta attack helicopters. The type is also due for a weapon and propulsion upgrade. Two aircraft will be equipped, by year’s end, with the Israeli Spike missile, which Italy is also mounting on vehicles.
“The Spike offers an eight-kilometer range compared to the four-kilometer range currently offered by the TOW missiles used in theater,” Stefanini said.