SANTIAGO, Chile — The Chilean Air Force officials brought an ambitious shopping list to the International Air and Space Fair (FIDAE) here this week. They want to replace an observation satellite in service since 2011, upgrade and extend the life of several A/T-36 jet trainers and buy turboprop medium military transport aircraft. But the only item that to date has funding is the purchase of helicopters for disaster relief operations, $180 million for five to seven medium transport helicopters. In a country prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and volcano eruptions, the Chilean government wants to expand the numbers of transport helicopters available for use in disaster relief operations. That differs from the Chilean Air Force, which wants helicopters for combat search and rescue. Chile plans to select and order a medium transport helicopter from competitors that, so far, include the Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk, the Airbus H215M (formerly known as AS532), the Rosvertol Mil Mi-17, South Korea’s KAI KUH-1 Surion and the AgustaWestland AW139. There are signs the Chilean Air Force has already chosen the S-70. In the 1990s, the service sought a number of them, but its budget limited it to one; and in 2008, the Chilean Air Force and Sikorsky restarted regular talks. Airbus is making a strong pitch for its H215M, based on its use in service with the Chilean Army and Navy. But a military source close to the project told Defense News, on condition of anonymity, that the Chilean Air Force, which wants to buy a machine able to fly over the Andes mountains with a sizable load in CSAR operations, was dissatisfied with the H215M’s performance in high and hot conditions. Emilio Meneses, a local analyst in Santiago, told Defense News that the Chilean Air Force has a longstanding preference for the S-70, based on both its performance and interoperability with US forces, but the service is seeking competitive bids only to fulfill Chile’s fiscal and military procurement regulations. “It is not uncommon in the Chilean military to run bidding process where a choice has been pre-made, both to fulfill regulations as well as to press the provider of the preferred solution to lower prices or to offer more,” Meneses said. “In this case, the Air Force authorities are surely going to favor S-70 in the bidding process and eventual decision, in despite of the intense lobby deployed by Airbus and other competitors.” However, according to the military source, “the funding allocated to buy the helicopters would only allow, very tightly, [the procurement of] five S-70s, barely equipped to the standards sought by the Chilean Air Force.” To equip the helicopters for their CSAR role, the service is seeking advanced navigation systems optimized for low altitudes; night/all weather vision; secured communications systems, and an in-flight refueling probe.
José Higuera is the South America correspondent for Defense News, covering South American and Latin American affairs.