AgustaWestland's PZL Swidnik, with its AW149, is one of three consortiums competing in a 70-helicopter acquisition by Poland. (AgustaWestland)
WARSAW — With the crisis in Ukraine forcing Eastern European governments to refocus on defense, several are expanding their helicopter fleets to replace largely Russian-built aircraft, with an emphasis on transport.
Poland is developing the largest helicopter procurement program in the region, with plans to buy 70 new aircraft this year as part of a military modernization program that extends to 2022. The deal is estimated to be worth about 8 billion zloty (US $2.7 billion), local daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita reported.
Under the plan, the Polish Land Forces are to acquire 48 transport helicopters while the Air Force and Navy will receive 10 and six search-and-rescue helos, respectively. The Navy also will acquire six anti-submarine helicopters.
The Defense Ministry has preselected three consortiums to compete in the tender. The bidders include Sikorsky Aircraft’s local plant, PZL Mielec, with its Black Hawk; AgustaWestland’s PZL Swidnik, with the AW149; and a consortium led by Airbus Helicopter with the EC-725.
“The technical negotiations … with the manufacturers have been held since 2013. The submission of final bids is expected in 2014,” the ministry said in a statement. Deliveries are scheduled to begin a year later.
Senior ministry officials have emphasized that the helicopters will most likely be locally built in an effort to stimulate Poland’s defense industry. This would provide a competitive advantage to AgustaWestland and Sikorsky, which operate the two Poland-based aircraft plants.
Meanwhile, the government reportedly has been considering acquiring a stake in Airbus Defence & Space to integrate Poland’s state-owned defense companies with their European peers, although Polish defense industry consolidation continues to unfold.
Local analysts say the plan could increase Airbus Helicopters’ standing in the contest.
“The Polish government wants to make [local defense manufacturers] more competitive and active in export markets. Policymakers know this can’t be achieved without the transfer of new technologies, so the plan is to allow them to become more involved with the European industry,” said one analyst with a government-run think tank here. “Awarding the helicopter deal to a European consortium … could seal the deal.”
Hungary Eyes Major Fleet Overhaul
Neighboring Hungary also plans to boost its military’s airlift capacity. In April, the government purchased three Mil Mi-8 transport helicopters, and the military wants to purchase new aircraft and transport aircraft under a 105 billion forint (US $470 million) program to boost its fleet by 2016.
Under the plan, some 100 billion forints are to be spent on acquiring helicopters and a further 5 billion forints for new planes. The purchase will consume a large portion of the country’s defense budget, which totaled 241.37 billion forints in 2013.
The government had postponed the launch of the aircraft acquisition program because of the April 6 parliamentary elections. Since the ruling Fidesz Party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban secured a comfortable majority in the vote, Defense Minister Csaba Hende likely will proceed with the much-awaited program.
Among the Balkan states, Croatia’s Mi-8 helicopters are being modernized by Ukrainian defense giant Ukroboronprom, the company that delivered a number of overhauled copters to Hungary this year.
Multipurpose Helos for Czechs
In the Czech Republic, the country’s Defense Ministry is planning to acquire 16 new multipurpose helicopters to replace its Russian-built aircraft. The aircraft are to be fit for combat and transport, as well as search-and-rescue and medical evacuation missions.
Deliveries are scheduled to take place from 2016 to 2020, reported local news agency CTK.
Lt. Gen. Petr Pavel, chief of the General Staff, said the new machines will replace Russian-built Mil Mi-24 and Mi-35 helos. Under the plan, the aircraft will be withdrawn from service from 2016 to 2018.
“After this period, we will not maintain [the helicopters] in service because their overhaul and servicing would cost us money that we simply don’t want to spend,” Pavel said.
The general did not disclose which helicopter is most likely to be purchased by the Czech Defense Ministry, but he said the military has interest in aircraft from six manufacturers.
The country’s military helicopter fleet consists of W-3A Sokol aircraft made by PZL Swidnik and Mi-8, Mi-17, Mi-24 and Mi-35 helos produced by state-owned Moscow Mil Helicopter Plant. ■