LONDON — A £1 billion (U.S. $1.25 billion) competition to acquire a new fleet of medium-size helicopters for the British military was officially triggered by the Ministry of Defence this week.
The government on May 18 released procurement details to acquire up to 44 helicopters when it gave potential contenders for the contract until June 20 to respond to a pre-qualification questionnaire scoping out their interest.
The envisioned New Medium Helicopter “will provide a common medium-lift, multi-role helicopter, fitted for, but not with, specialist mission role equipment and able to operate in all environments in support of defense tasks,” said the industry solicitation
The race will see the Airbus H175 M, Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky Blackhawk, Leonardo AW146 and others make a pitch for a program mainly aimed at replacing 23 long-serving Puma machines, as well as consolidating the British support helicopter capabilities by axing smaller Bell 412, Bell 212 and Airbus Dauphin fleets.
Bell Textron with the 525 Relentless and a little known British company called AceHawk Aerospace offering second-hand Blackhawks refurbished at a site on Teeside, northeast England, are also among other possible contenders.
Officials from the U.S. helicopter maker have previously signaled the New Medium Helicopter competition might have come a little early for the new 525.
The industry questionnaire said the government envisages five bids for the requirement.
The British government’s prosperity agenda, aimed at driving up defense jobs and skills from defense procurements, will likely be a likely key factor in the procurement.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace made the point speaking in Parliament earlier this year.
“Whoever wins this [NMH] competition, it is important that they contribute to the prosperity and job opportunities for U.K. citizens. I am not interested in ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ suppliers for this,” he said Jan. 10.
Some 10 percent of the tender evaluation criteria will be accounted for along those lines, according to the the industry questionnaire.
Leonardo Helicopters is the long-time domestic builder here but others are looking to nullify the potential advantage the Yoevil-based company has by setting up U.K. operations of their own.
Airbus Helicopters, which has a substantial civil and military presence in the helicopter market here already, has committed to setting up an assembly site at Broughton, north Wales, where the company employs thousands of workers building wings for civil airliners.
Speaking to Defense News earlier this year, Colin James, the Airbus Helicopters managing director in the UK said: “The U.K. government with the new defense strategy have made it very clear what they are looking for, both in military terms but also in industrial terms.”
“When it comes to capability, we believe we have a very good offering with the H175M and also what they are looking for in terms of independence of operation, contribution to technical development, intellectual property creation, skills and then also making it sustainable through export,” he said.
Lockheed Martin, the third of the likely front runners for the deal, will generate U.K. involvement in its bid but is expected to offer Blackhawk S70M machines built at its factory in Poland.
That may not be the disadvantage it may have seemed at one time.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has strengthened relations between London and Warsaw, and that is reflected in the increasingly close industrial relationship with Britain securing several significant naval and missile contracts in recent months.
“We believe the S-70 Black Hawk, specifically designed to military standards and built in Poland, which has a strategic defense partnership with the U.K., would be an ideal solution for the British armed forces’ operational needs even in the toughest of operational environments,” Lockheed said in a May 19 statement.
The Ministry of Defence has put the procurement budget at between £900 million and £1.2 billion, including simulators, training and support elements.
An invitation to tender is scheduled to be issued at the end of September. The industry questionnaire doesn’t give a contract award target or a first delivery date, but it does say the contract completion should be within 84 months of signing the deal.
Wallace said earlier this year he hoped the delivery date would be mid-decade.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.