Delays in deliveries of NH90 helicopters spurred Sweden to allocate special funds to purchase UH-60M Black Hawks, above. (US Army)
HELSINKI — Nordic nations have struggled with their much-delayed Nordic Standard Helicopter Program (NSHP), especially since capability shortages have appeared since 2010 in combat, troop transport and medical evacuation missions.
Under a $1.3 billion NSHP project agreement reached in 2001, NHIndustries was contracted to deliver 52 twin-engine NH90 utility helicopters to Sweden, Finland and Norway starting in 2004 and 2005. NHIndustries is a European consortium owned by Airbus Helicopters (62.5 percent), Italy’s AgustaWestland (32 percent) and Fokker Aerostructures of the Netherlands (5.5 percent).
By the end of 2010, just four NH90s had been delivered to Sweden and Norway. Deliveries were further complicated when the three Nordic customers opted not to purchase a common helicopter type, choosing instead to request customized features prior to delivery.
In the case of Sweden, serial postponements provoked a critical shortage of tactical and transport aircraft for operations in Afghanistan after 2008. The crisis forced the government to allocate special funds to purchase 15 Sikorsky Aircraft UH-60M Black Hawks at a cost of $550 million.
This was envisioned as a stopgap measure to ensure the armed forces had sufficient aircraft available for both domestic and international operations until the NH90s (Swedish Army designation HKP 14) arrived.
The unscheduled Black Hawk acquisition meant that the budget for the Swedish Helicopter Equipment Acquisition Program (HEAP) for 2010-2020 increased from $625 million to almost $1 billion. Under the recast HEAP, the Air Force plans to have full Black Hawk and NH90 fleets operational by 2020.
Sweden ordered 18 NH90s with an option for a further seven under the 2001 NSHP agreement. Finland placed orders for 20 NH90s while Norway’s requirement was 14 helicopters with an option to purchase an additional 10. The NH90 unit purchase cost averaged $25 million.
Under Sweden’s HEAP, the $450 million acquisition budget for the 18 NH90s will rise to $625 billion if the Air Force exercises the option to acquire an additional seven units.
Black Hawks in Action
“There was a very real need to address the operational needs of the Army and enable them to carry out their important missions in Afghanistan with modern and combat-tested helicopters,” said Karin Enström, Sweden’s defense minister. “The investment strengthens the armed forces’ all-weather capacity to operate at home and abroad, and in the most demanding conditions.”
The acquisition of Black Hawks, the first batch of which have supported Swedish troops in Afghanistan since November, has reduced pressure on the Swedish Air Force to meet the need to release combat-ready helicopters for overseas missions, said Joop Alders, a defense analyst based in The Hague.
“The Black Hawks are proving a good all-round capability fit for a Swedish defense organization that is changing to a modular brigade structure,” he said. “This format will have a higher requirement for a battle proven, medium-weight helicopter system.”
The Defense Ministry’s decision to buy Black Hawks followed inconclusive talks with NHIndustries, which was unable to confirm fixed NH90 delivery dates. As a result, the FMV, Sweden’s defense materiel procurement agency, was instructed to open talks with Sikorsky in April 2011.
By May 2011, the FMV had signed an agreement for 15 UH-60Ms through the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales program.
The $546 million investment includes 34 T700-GE-701D General Electric engines, AN/AAR-57v3 Common Missile Warning Systems, AN/APR-39 radar signal-detecting sets, AN/AVR-2B laser warning sets, aviation mission planning stations, transportable operations simulators; communications equipment, spare parts, repair kits and maintenance support equipment.
Under an accelerated delivery schedule, six Black Hawks were delivered in 2011 and the remaining nine in 2012. The first two HKP 16s (Sweden’s designation for the Black Hawks) were delivered to the Malmen Helicopter Base in mid-December 2011. All 15 Black Hawks are expected to be fully operational by 2017.
“This was an easy decision for us to make. The HKP 16 is a proven system. Over 3,000 Black Hawks have been supplied to various customers in the world,” said FMV’s project manager, Magnus Larsson.
The deal saw Sweden become the first European country to acquire the US Army’s UH-60M model.
The first two HKP 16 Black Hawks entered service in Afghanistan during the first half of 2013, attached to the Swedish military base at Camp Marmal. The HKP 16s supported or replaced Eurocopter AS332/HKP 10B Super Puma helicopters in troop transport, medevac and search-and-rescue (SAR) roles.
Despite the protracted delivery schedule, Sweden plans to complete the NH90 acquisition, which comprises 13 tactical troop transport/SAR and five anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters.
Delay in Norway
Difficulties in securing delivery of the NH90 also limited the Norwegian Defense Force’s ability to maintain a ready supply of modern helicopters for domestic and international missions in 2010 to 2012.
In June 2012, Norway’s MoD signaled that it might cancel the NH90 order and was reported to have contacted Sikorsky regarding a possible accelerated purchase of the MH-60 Seahawk ASW variant as an alternative.
But NHIndustries delivered a second NH90 NFH (NATO frigate variant helicopter) in December 2012, easing the situation. The first was delivered in December 2011.
The ship-borne helicopters will be deployed on the Royal Norwegian Navy’s Fridtjof Nansen-class frigates and Coast Guard vessels operating off the country’s Arctic northern coast and in the Barents Sea.
The NH90 segment of Norway’s helicopter modernization program will cost $350 million based on 14 units bought, and up to $600 million if the additional 10 are acquired. When fully operational in 2017 to 2018, the NH90 NFHs would fill the role currently executed by the Royal Norwegian Navy’s multirole Bell, Lynx and Sea King SAR aircraft.
Finland, too, has encountered delivery delays in its order of 20 NH90 tactical transport helicopters. The contract, valued at around $500 million, was renegotiated in August.
Under the revised schedule, initial deliveries will be completed by the end of this year, some six years behind schedule. Completion of the full delivery program has been extended to 2018.
Norway continues to invest heavily in its offshore SAR capability. In December, it contracted AgustaWestland to deliver 16 AW101 all-weather SAR helicopters, with deliveries scheduled in 2017 to 2020.
The $1.6 billion deal, which includes life-cycle support, parts and an option for six more aircraft, is intended to provide the Royal Norwegian Air Force with an enhanced SAR capability in High North waters, supporting naval and Coast Guard operations.
Denmark also has been strengthening its heli-capability through a $686 million maritime helicopter replacement program, which will see the Royal Danish Air Force acquire nine Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin MH-60R Seahawks. The aircraft, which will replace Lynx 90B helicopters, are scheduled to be delivered between 2016 and 2018.
Routed through the US Foreign Military Sales program, the MH-60R acquisition is intended to support the Danish plan to deploy more ship-borne helicopters on vessels operating in Denmark’s Arctic territories, covering the Faroe Islands and Greenland.
“Our objective was to obtain the most capable multimission maritime helicopter. We have achieved this goal. The MH-60R Seahawk is a proven anytime and anywhere aircraft that best suits our needs,” said Maj. Gen. Flemming Lenfter of the Danish Defense Forces project planning department. ■