PARIS — Six NATO countries signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly work on concepts for a next-generation helicopter on June 16 at a meeting of alliance defense ministers in Brussels.
France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are committing €26.7 million, or roughly $28 million, for the Next-Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) project, according to a NATO statement. Canada will likely be an observer nation.
“In cooperation with industry, the participants will start from a clean sheet to explore how to match their needs with the latest technology on the market, looking at options such as hybrid and electric propulsion, a systematic open system architecture and the delivery of radically improved flight characteristics,” the statement reads.
“Moving into the concepts phase is really going to define the requirements based against the threats that we’re going to be facing globally,“ Col. Alex Willman, capability sponsor of combat aviation within the U.K.’s futures directorate, said at the Eurosatory defense trade show here, just an hour after the countries inked the deal.
“What’s exciting for me is this is one of the first clean-sheet-design aircraft,” he said, adding: “NGRC to me is about transformation capability, delivering an aircraft or an airframe or a system that is an open system architecture based on digital backbones and is aimed for us as soldiers and airmen to be able to modify that aircraft to keep up with the pace of the threat.”
The countries will look at range and speed improvements for a medium-lift helicopter, the ability to operate in an electronic warfare scenario and a variety of other attributes that will be refined over the next two to three years. The envisioned missions include transportation, medical evacuation, search and rescue, and assault.
The Netherlands is the most recent nation to sign onto the NGRC program, as France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom signed letters of intent to participate in the effort in late 2020. Many of the countries involved will see helicopters reaching the end of their expected service life, and the goal is to come up with aircraft to replace them by 2035.
The new aircraft must have an unrefueled range of more than 1,650 kilometers, with a target of eight hours endurance and a load capacity between 10,000 and 17,000 kilograms (22,000 and 37,400 pounds, respectively).
The goal is also to develop a common airframe for both land, air and maritime variants, although the agency allows for the possibility of separate platforms if a common airframe proves too contentious.
Working across several different nations is challenging, Cyril Heckel, NATO acquisition and development manager, said at the conference.
“You can talk about it and look at it in a theoretical abstract level, everybody gets it,” he said, but “it becomes a little bit more complicated and tricky when you’re trying to translate this theoretical appeal into actual practical action. Six sovereign nations together, they all have different ways how federal offices work, approach to the topic, different democratic biases, different funding mechanisms, different funding, different cycles, maybe also different thoughts about requirements.”
But European aviation stakeholders say the time is right for helicopter programs to rise again on the continent.
“We are at the start of a new era for rotary-wing or for vertical flight here in Europe,” said Roberto Garavaglia, Leonardo Helicopters senior vice president for strategy, during a June 15 panel at the Eurosatory exhibition.
Not only are helicopters proliferating in militaries around the world, but it’s the first time since the early 1980s, when the NH-90 program was established, that European nations are discussing new aircraft requirements, he noted.
He acknowledged that for any future helicopter program, industry partners will have to work hard to overcome the inevitable workshare disputes that have tripped up many a joint European program in the past.
“It’s easier to combine the capabilities that you can develop in Oklahoma and Michigan than those which you can develop between France and Italy, because we have hundreds of years of history, and … we are not a federal union,” he noted.
Jerome Combe, Airbus lead for product policy and strategy, called the NGRC program an opportunity to “reset better partnerships” and develop a more “linear” way to work together among industry partners.
The NATO-led effort to field a multirole helicopter could be setting the stage for a competition between U.S.- and European-based rotorcraft industries.
The U.S. Army plans to select a winner between Bell and a Sikorsky-Boeing team to build its Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft, or FLRAA, around September. The service plans to field the aircraft in 2030.
At the same time, the U.S. Army is pursuing a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) with plans to fly prototypes in 2023, and the service is developing Air-Launched Effects along with a modular open systems architecture.
But the NGRC program is expected to face pressure from European industry to select local companies to design and develop the future aircraft.
The U.S. and the U.K. signed a bilateral agreement earlier this year to explore the possibility of cooperation on future vertical lift (FVL) programs.
While the U.K. has signed the agreement to exchange information on FVL, it is not a commitment to buy into associated programs, Willman said. “This sits alongside the Next-Generation Rotorcraft.”
Range, speed and other performance improvements are aspects of the FVL program the U.K. is interested in, he added, but “we are absolutely committed to NGRC.”
The Italian military, while it does not have a similar agreement in place like the U.K. and the U.S., partnered in the U.S.-based aviation exercise Edge 2022 at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, last month, to work on interoperability concepts for FVL.
Along with Italy, the Netherlands and Germany were active participants in the exercise while Australia, Canada, France and the U.K. were observers.
Italy’s participation was essential to understanding what the U.S. is doing for FVL, where timelines may match up and where there are interoperability opportunities, Col. Pier Luigi Verdecchia, of the Italian defense ministry, said.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.
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.