PARIS — Helicopter maker Sikorsky is considering setting up a final assembly line for Black Hawks in the United Kingdom to support a bid for the nation’s New Medium Helicopter program.
While the Ministry of Defence has yet to release an invitation to tender for the £1 billion ($1.28 billion) modernization program, the Lockheed Martin subsidiary is weighing final assembly options both on the European continent as well as the U.K., company president Paul Lemmo said June 21.
“We’re waiting to see what the requirements are, what the structure of the tender is going to be, before we make final decisions,” he told a small group of reporters at the biennial Paris Air Show outside of the city. “We’re not locked in on one path.”
The company could potentially move its final assembly line to the United Kingdom if it wins the contract, or, alternatively, perform final assembly “elsewhere in Europe” and then add final, U.K.-specific modifications to the aircraft in-country, Lemmo said. Should the latter decision prevail, the final assembly would likely take place in Poland at PZL Mielec, which is owned by Lockheed Martin.
Sikorsky has been in discussions with a number of U.K.-based suppliers to find “the most capable partners” should it opt to perform final assembly and completion in Britain, he noted. A location selection has yet to be made. But the choice to go U.K. or mainland Europe may hinge on what sort of Black Hawk model meets the British defense ministry’s requirements. The potential for future exports also factors into the decision about a proper in-country line.
“If they buy a variant that is heavily required by other countries, why wouldn’t we do that?” Lemmo said. “If they buy a variant that looks like every other Black Hawk? Maybe not.”
The ministry released a series of procurement details in May 2022, with plans to procure up to 44 new helicopters to replace the Army’s fleet of 23 Puma systems, and a handful of aging Bell 412, Bell 212 and Airbus Dauphin fleets.
Leonardo is pitching their AW149 helicopter, while Airbus has recommended the H175M, a militarized version of their commercial 7-ton utility aircraft. Boeing has stated it will pitch the MH-139 Grey Wolf, which is a modified version of the commercial AW139 platform developed by AgustaWestland – now part of Leonardo.
Then-Defence Secretary Ben Wallace made it clear last year that whichever company is selected to provide the New Medium Helicopter must give a portion of the workshare to U.K. workers.
“I am not interested in ‘Here today, gone tomorrow’-suppliers for this,” he said at the time.
Sikorsky’s Lemmo said he was observing “continued” interest in the Black Hawk from European nations during the Paris Air Show, the first since COVID-19 emerged in 2020, and since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.
Many of those countries hail from Eastern Europe and are currently operating Soviet-made equipment, he noted. The discussions circle around procuring Black Hawks on a very short timeframe.
“They want them inside of our lead time,” Lemmo said. “And so, we are trying to figure out ways to help that. If it’s a foreign military sale, perhaps the Army can let some go off of their production line earlier than normal. If it’s a direct commercial sale, we’re trying to do some work ahead to get aircraft in the pipeline earlier, to deliver earlier.”
The State Department has been working with industry to expedite the FMS sales to nations who are divesting their Soviet-era military equipment to Ukraine, in an effort to both encourage more support to Kyiv and wean these partners quickly off of Russian platforms, a U.S. official told reporters at the air show this week.
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.