STUTTGART, Germany — A NATO-led effort to field a new multirole helicopter by 2035 is setting the stage for a competition between U.S.- and European-based rotorcraft industries.
Multiple allies want to add a new medium-lift, multirole helicopter to their fleets, and are launching a joint effort to develop a common set of requirements as well as hash out a timeline to design, develop and field a new platform around 2035.
Over the next year, observers will monitor whether the allies that eventually sign onto the program will push for a European-developed rotorcraft — or buy American.
Last fall, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Greece signed letters of intent to work together on requirements for the Next-Generation Rotorcraft Capability, or NGRC. Since then, several other allies have signaled interest in joining the program, ahead of an expected signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding in 2022.
While the effort is still in the drawing-board phase, the alliance will host an industry day for the NGRC program in mid-September, at the NATO Support and Procurement Agency headquarters in Luxembourg. Per the industry day documents, the event is intended solely as a means to gather information, rather than solicit bids, but the agency has already outlined several required attributes.
The team imagines the NGRC as an optionally unmanned and remotely piloted vehicle, with a modular, open-systems approach, which allows for seamless and cost-efficient digital upgrades.
The aircraft must have an unrefueled range of more than 1,650 kilometers, with a target of eight hours endurance and the ability to achieve various missions, including deck landings, special operations, search-and-rescue, and medical evacuation. The helicopter should be capable of carrying 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.
While NATO said development costs will be released at a later date, the industry day documents noted an ideal fly-away cost of no greater than €35 million (U.S. $43 million) and a cost-per-flight-hour of about €5,000, but no greater than €10,000.
The extent of NATO members participating in the program remains to be seen. Besides the five nations who have already signed a letter of intent to participate in late 2020, the Netherlands and Spain have also expressed interest in joining the NGRC program, a NATO official told Defense News.
The industry day background document also noted that the United States is interested in joining the program amid its own development program for a new multirole medium-lift helicopter.
The U.S. Army is close to launching a formal program to build the future long-range assault aircraft, or FLRAA, after awarding risk-reduction phase contracts in March to a Boeing-Sikorsky team and to Bell. The service intends to select a winner in 2022 at the start of the official program, with plans to field the aircraft by 2035.
“The United States is closely associated with the NGRC effort, to ensure maximum compatibility between NGRC and the FLRAA” programs, the NATO official said. No further letters of intent or other documents have emerged since the original letters were signed in October 2020, the official added.
Should the United States sign on as a formal partner, it will likely look to use the NGRC as another sale for the eventual FLRAA aircraft, observers said. While the two efforts are, so far, independent of each other, they seek to fill the same requirement, said Ray Jaworowski, a senior analyst at Forecast International, a U.S.-based market intelligence firm.
“It’s an interesting situation because you have two programs [with] very similar time frames, essentially looking at almost the exact same requirement: a utility helicopter in the Black Hawk or NH90 class,” he said.
Whichever design wins the FLRAA contract will be a leading contender for the NATO program, Jaworowski said. But the nations that have already signed onto NGRC will undoubtedly push for their hometown industries to play significant roles in the effort.
France and Germany will likely vie for Airbus to lead any new helicopter development, while Leonardo would be the favorite for Italy and the United Kingdom, said Dan Darling, a senior analyst at Forecast International. Turf wars between the allies’ domestic industrial priorities are expected, and the question on analysts’ minds is whether local industry concerns will trump the alliance’s ambition to ensure commonality and economies of scale, Darling noted.
European nations are “trying to reconstitute an atrophying domestic defense-industrial base,” he said. “COVID-19 drove home to a lot of these governments that you can no longer offshore work and supply chains, and outsource your military procurement.”
Airbus is pushing strongly for a European-built system, an industry source told Defense News. Leonardo has also advocated for that option, but also indicated it wants to participate in the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift program, Jaworowski noted. FVL is the service’s major overhaul of its rotorcraft fleet and includes the FLRAA effort along with four other aircraft designs of varying sizes.
The list of participating countries is not yet set in stone, and analysts see scenarios where nations such as the United Kingdom and Italy break off, choosing to develop a Leonardo-based design or procure the FLRAA aircraft, while Germany, France and perhaps Spain go with an Airbus option. “Or you can see Airbus and Leonardo get together for a European design, which would certainly be the favorite for the NATO program, considering industrial concerns,” Jaworowski said.
If the FLRAA design were ultimately selected, observers can expect some sort of requirement for considerable European industrial participation such as a final assembly facility included in the contract, he added. And if the American design is not selected, he added, having the United States participate in the NGRC program in some capacity could help ensure interoperability between the two eventual systems.
The outcome of the NGRC program could set up the eventual contractor for long-term sales. A Fortune Business Insights report published in August 2020 predicts the global helicopter market size will exceed $68 billion by 2027, up from $48 billion in 2019. While military helicopters only took up one-third of overall sales in 2019, the report’s authors see opportunities ahead, as nations around the world are boosting their defense budgets amid rising transnational disputes and efforts to modernize capabilities.
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.