ROME — Europe is becoming a hive of activity when it comes to helicopters, as armed forces take deliveries, switch types between services, make upgrades and place a few new orders as lessons are learned from Afghanistan.
At the same time, in Germany, and possibly France, officials are also taking the knife to orders as budget cuts kick in.
Among the nations prepared to invest is the United Kingdom, which is planning to spend 12.1 billion pounds ($18.4 billion) by 2021 upgrading, supporting and taking delivery of new machines ordered in the last few years.
The first of 38 new AgustaWestland-developed Wildcat machines for British Army reconnaissance duties and 28 Wildcat surface combatant variants for the Royal Navy arrived last year. This year will see delivery of the first of 24 updated Eurocopter Puma transport helicopters to the Royal Air Force as part of a 300 million pound life-extension and support program.
The schedule calls for delivery of 14 new Chinooks, ordered from Boeing in 2011 in a 1 billion pound deal, to begin by the end of the year.
Funding is available to upgrade British Army Apache AH-64D attack helicopters and for conversion of the Royal Air Force’s fleet of Merlin AW101 Mk3s from a battlefield transport role to maritime duties, transporting Royal Marine Commandos from ship to shore when their present Sea King fleet is stood down in 2016.
Lockheed Martin and AgustaWestland are also part way through a major update of Merlin anti-submarine machines used by the Royal Navy.
For France, a burning question is whether the government will go ahead with a second order for 34 NH90 helicopters for the French Army, each costing 28.6 million euros ($36.7 million), according to a 2012 French Senate report. The order was due at the end of March with first delivery in 2016, but the contract has turned into a cliffhanger as defense officials try to limit spending cuts demanded by the Finance Ministry.
Eurocopter hopes to find out the fate of the deal in the next few weeks, Dominique Maudet, company executive vice president, said March 27.
The NH90 heads the list of programs under threat, followed by the Véhicule Blindé MultiRole troop carrier and the Multi-Role Tanker and Transport aircraft, a French Senate report on the defense budget stated in November.
A timely execution of the NH90 program is needed to protect helicopter transport capacity, the Senate report said. France ordered 12 NH90s in 2007 and a second batch of 22 in 2008.
In Germany, a deal to cut purchases of Tiger combat helicopters and NH90 transports was reached on March 15. Tigers were reduced from 80 to 57 and industry committed to buying back 11 delivered aircraft.
Germany has deployed four of its new Tigers in a special configuration to Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, where they have been flying support, security and surveillance missions since February.
NH90 orders, meanwhile, fell from 122 to 82, four of which are due to head to Afghanistan, mainly for medical evacuation.
The German military has also transferred Army CH-53 medium-weight helicopters to the Air Force, putting the service in charge of tactical-strategic air transport, while the Army — operating NH90s — keeps tactical air transport capabilities.
As Germany cuts, Poland eyes 70 new helicopters for an estimated $3 billion. On Feb. 18, Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak approved a program to buy the aircraft in several variants, with the tender due midyear and the first purchases planned at the end of 2014.
Under the purchase, land forces would acquire 48 transport copters, the Air Force and Navy would get 10 and six search-and-rescue helos, respectively, and the Navy would also get six anti-submarine versions.
Local media have reported that four manufacturers are interested in bidding for the Polish helicopter contract: AgustaWestland, with the AW149; PZL Swidnik, also owned by AgustaWestland, with its W-3 Sokol; Eurocopter, with the EC 725; and Sikorsky, with its S-70i Black Hawk.
Siemoniak said the ministry is also planning to acquire new combat helicopters after 2018.
The ongoing reorganization of Nordic armed forces into modular-style, rapid-response units more compatible for international missions has strongly influenced helicopter acquisition decisions. Nordic forces have emphasized extreme weather, multirole aircraft with a strong tactical capability, in contrast to the earlier emphasis on infantry support and troop carriers.
This transition was evident in Denmark’s selection in November of the Sikorsky/Lockheed MH-60R to replace the Danish Air Force’s maritime Lynx helicopters, beating out AgustaWestland’s AW159 Lynx Wildcat.
The shift to multirole helicopter types was also clear in Sweden’s decision to purchase 15 Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk utility and general infantry support helicopters in 2012. The first UH-60Ms entered service in Afghanistan in March.
Afghanistan has been a proving ground for the NH90, with Italy the first to deploy the type there. It joined Italy’s AgustaWestland AW129 Mangusta attack helicopters, which Army chief Lt. Gen. Claudio Graziano has described as “an enormous help” to Italian special operations forces.
Their firepower is due to be increased by the adoption of the Israeli Spike missile, while Graziano also expects the first of 12 new
CH-47Fs on order to arrive in service by year’s end or early 2014.
Jaroslaw Adamowski in Warsaw, Andrew Chuter in London, Albrecht Müller in Bonn, Gerard O’Dwyer in Helsinki and Pierre Tran in Paris contributed.