Even by the notorious standards of military procurement, there is something very odd about helicopter contests. Right now there are no fewer than three stories coincidentally running on the helicopter section of Flight’s site about helicopter selections that are in difficulties.
Norway can’t decide if it was such a good idea to opt for NH Industries NH90s for its SAR needs.
The USAF is in all sorts of trouble with its choice of the Boeing HH-47 Chinook for its combat SAR aircraft.
And the US Army has ordered Bell to stop work on the ARH-70A armed reconaissance helicopter. A few months ago both AgustaWestland and MD Helicopters contested Eurocopter’s win in the US Army’s light utility helicopter competition – though they were rejected. And of course the selection of the EH101 as the US presidential helicopter sparked uproar – though that had more to do with nationalism than anything else.
In fact about the only big US contest that was run fair and square without dispute was the daddy of them all – the original selection of the Boeing/Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche over Bell/McDonnell Douglas back in the early 1990s. All went well until the Army cancelled the entire programme mid-way through having spent $7 billion. (Apache and Black Hawk were before my time.)
I genuinely struggle to explain all this. Some of it has to do with the fact that helicopter requirements tend to be quite precisely drafted around performance, often with a particular machine in mind. And the flipside is that helicopters are by definition designed to very specific parameters. The winner is often the machine that misses the spec by the least amount.
But why these programmes run into terminal difficulties down the line is harder to explain. Lousy procurement has a logic all of its own of course, but the same US Army also came up with the Chinook, Black Hawk and Apache (and Longbow Apache) – four of the most effective warfighting systems in modern history.