STUTTGART, Germany – Five NATO member nations have signed on to build the alliance’s next-generation helicopter, planned to replace existing fleets starting in 2035.

France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Greece each signed letters of intent to participate in the program, dubbed “Next-Generation Rotorcraft Capability,” or NGRC, per a Nov. 19 statement issued by NATO.

Over the coming years, these partners will work together to develop “an entirely new helicopter capability” that would replace a variety of medium multi-role rotorcraft fleets that are expected to retire between 2035 and 2040. The program was launched on the margins of the virtually held defense ministerial meeting in October, the alliance said.

“By investing our resources and channeling our development initiatives through a multinational framework, we are making sure allies are equipped with the best available capabilities, which helps to maintain NATO’s technological edge,” NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoană was quoted as saying in the release.

The letters of intent are non-binding documents, and the initial cooperation effort is in principle open to other NATO allies and partners, subject to the approval of the existing participants, a NATO official said in an email to Defense News.

Details including cost, work share between the five nations and specific timelines have not yet been released. NATO envisions defense ministers from participating countries will sign a legally binding memorandum of understanding for the initial concept phase around 2022.

In the meantime, the allies will develop a statement of requirements to inform that concept phase, and hash out a cooperation plan to define, develop and field the next-generation helicopter. The NATO official noted that it will be critical to “get the intellectual foundation for NGRC right,” and that 2021 discussions to establish an initial common statement of requirements will not require “substantial” capital expenditures.

Next year’s efforts will provide “a robust starting point for the participants to discuss and design the subsequent concept phase and agree on the associated funding requirements for the following years,” the official said.

As a medium multi-role rotorcraft, this new capability would assist NATO allies in missions including insertion and extraction of special operations forces, and transporting small- and medium-sized cargo and troops within operational theaters. It would also be used in medical evacuation, search and rescue, and anti-submarine warfare.

NATO is launching this effort just as the U.S. Army is firming up requirements for its own new medium multi-role rotorcraft, via the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) competition. A draft request for proposals for this capability – part of the service’s next-generation Future Vertical Lift family of systems – is expected by the end of 2020. Bell and a Boeing-Sikorsky team have each already built a technology demonstrator, and are expected to compete for the contract award, with plans to field the new aircraft by 2030.