STUTTGART, Germany, and ROME — As some NATO nations go to the drawing board for a new military helicopter, manufacturers are studying Russia’s war in Ukraine for clues about features and tactics that would give their designs an edge.
Western leaders have put a premium on conventional ground warfare and related capabilities since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion in February 2022. For the rotorcraft world, the battles raging around the country have demonstrated how it’s not only the aircraft themselves that are a deciding factor in war, but also commanders’ tactical choices in employing them.
Both Russia and Ukraine fly the 1960s-era Mil Mi-8 helicopters over the Ukrainian battlefield, albeit in very different ways, said Stefan Thomé, the executive vice president of engineering and the chief technical officer for Airbus Helicopters, as well as CEO of the firm’s German arm.
Russian troops have operated their aircraft during the daytime at high altitudes, giving Ukrainian defenders an easy target, he told Defense News. Meanwhile, Ukrainian pilots have flown the same type, but largely at night or at dawn, at low altitudes and always with natural coverage nearby.
“One of the lessons out of Ukraine for everybody is that the way you operate your systems, your weapons, your vehicle, can be more decisive than the vehicle itself,” Thomé said. “Given two identical vehicles, the operational concept makes the difference.”
Since the war in Ukraine began, Airbus has seen client nations reassess operational concepts, envisioning novel ways of using existing and planned equipment to maximum effect, Thomé added. And as Europe looks to refresh its military helicopter capabilities in the next decade, lessons learned from the war are bound to make their way into industry proposals, he noted.
Several NATO members are in the early phases of developing a new multirole helicopter by 2035. The planned Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability, or NGRC, is meant to assist allies in missions that include insertion and extraction of special operations forces, and transporting small- and medium-sized cargo and troops on the battlefield. It could also be used for medical evacuation, search and rescue operations, and anti-submarine warfare.
Six nations signed a memorandum of understanding in June 2022 during the biennial Eurosatory conference in Paris. France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom then agreed to contribute about $28 million collectively to develop joint concepts for the new rotorcraft. Canada is expected to join the project in June, a NATO spokesperson told Defense News.
So far, the NGRC group has planned a handful of concept studies. One or two of those studies will be awarded this year, focusing on novel power plant solutions and open-system architecture.
Alliance officials have already talked with European helicopter manufacturers in these early days of honing requirements, including Airbus. Thomé called it a “significant” initiative that could potentially emerge with multiple capabilities.
Program stakeholders have largely come together to agree on the size of the next allied helicopter, he noted. NATO documents show a desire for the new aircraft to have an unrefueled range of more than 1,650 kilometers (1,025 miles), eight hours of endurance and a load capacity between 10,000 and 17,000 kilograms (22,000 and 37,500 pounds).
Requirements for connectivity and in-field maintainability are two more elements that appear to be settled, Thomé said.
Other features under discussion include the ability to operate or connect with other crewed or unmanned vehicles as well as real-time decision-making tools for pilots as part of an avionics suite or communication systems, he added.
The United States is not participating in the NGRC effort per se, the alliance spokesperson told Defense News, “but as a NATO member with a very solid experience in innovative rotorcraft, we maintain communication channels to share feedback.”
A trans-Atlantic tech rift?
If European partners of NATO drag their feet for too long, that could exacerbate what some analysts believe is a growing trans-Atlantic disparity on vertical flight technology. Complicating matters is the fact that there are several projects aimed at roughly the same capability.
European Union officials recently announced their own dedicated helicopter effort as part of the bloc’s Permanent Structured Cooperation defense-cooperation scheme. France will lead the Next Generation Medium Helicopter program that also involves Italy, Finland and Spain, which will work on new platforms and upgrade existing types like the NH90.
The program will “ensure the availability and suitability of EU helicopter fleets until 2040,″ the EU said, as well as feeding into the bloc’s existing Next Generation Rotorcraft Technologies program.
“The U.S. has invested in [next-generation helicopter technology] and identified the quantum leap it wants to take, none of which Europe has done yet,” said Alessandro Marrone, head of the defense program at the Rome-based think tank IAI. “Europe has important decisions to make, and waiting too long will be damaging.”
One key fork in the road of future development has to do with propeller setup and, as a result, the weight given to the element of agility in helicopter employment scenarios.
The U.S. Army last year chose the Bell V-280 tiltrotor aircraft to replace Black Hawks in the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft program, or FLRAA, rejecting Sikorsky’s Defiant X coaxial rotor proposal.
The Army hasn’t chosen a platform for its Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program, but any decision in such a large American program would likely shape Western technology choices writ large. “The U.S. programs are the elephant in the room in Europe when it comes to the debate over future helicopters,” Marrone said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. decision to reject Sikorsky’s proposal raised eyebrows in Italy where generals and defense budget officials had come out in firm favor of the technology.
Italy’s coaxial conundrum
Last year, before the U.S. Army’s FLRAA decision, Italian Air Force chief Gen. Luca Goretti urged Italy to partner with Sikorsky and its parent company Lockheed Martin on coaxial rotor helicopters. That type of system features two rotors turning in opposite directions, and pusher propellers that increase speed.
He said the Italian Air Force needed the type, citing his concern that Bell’s tiltrotor solution would come with a large maintenance bill.
The Italian 2022 defense budget included initial funding for a Next Generation Fast Helicopter program “based on advanced and potentially disruptive technology, for example coaxial rotors and pusher propellors.” The program is due to receive €129 million (U.S. $138 million) in funding by 2032, the budget plan states.
To dispel any doubt as to which of the rival American FLRAA candidates the Defence Ministry preferred, the document features an illustration of Sikorsky’s helicopter.
But following the FLRAA defeat, enthusiasm for that specific Sikorsky technology is wavering, according to a source with knowledge of the ministry’s discussions.
“Additionally, the U.S. Army explanation of why it rejected Sikorsky was very critical, almost suggesting the firm was unreliable,” the source told Defense News on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Insiders in Italy have meanwhile said local company Leonardo was less enthusiastic about the coaxial solution than Italian generals, even though the business was asked by the government to team up with Lockheed Martin on the technology.
The reticence was linked to fears that focusing on coaxial technology could drain funds from Leonardo’s existing development of the conventional AW249, a replacement for its AW129 combat helicopter and of its AW609 tiltrotor.
A Leonardo spokesman recently said the firm had first conducted a study of coaxial technology with Lockheed Martin in 2021 at the request of the Italian Defence Ministry, adding that in “the last few weeks” the ministry had asked Leonardo to undertake “a second phase study based on operational needs of the various services.”
Asked what predictions Leonardo had for future helicopters, the firm said it saw a role for today’s conventional technologies.
“In the nearer future we see greater capabilities incrementally introduced on existing conventional models, or a mix of latest-generation, dual-use and specialized platforms entering the market,” the company said in a statement to Defense News.
Those capabilities would include greater network-centric features, advanced avionics, manned-unmanned teaming and more autonomy.
“In the longer term, even with disruptive solutions and architectures gradually expected to enter the inventories, conventional but ‘smarter’ helicopters will still have a significant role for decades,” Leonardo said.
There is still, however, plenty of opportunity for new “revolutionary” models, according to the company, primarily for delivering higher speeds and longer ranges.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.