Japan kicks off helicopter studies

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Requirements for utility and search and rescue aircraft to be in next five-year plan with contests starting 2008

Japan has begun studying potential replacements for its Bell/Fuji UH-1J utility and Sikorsky/Mitsubishi UH-60J search and rescue helicopters, despite having excluded both projects from its new five-year defence spending plan, which came into effect on 1 April.

The Japan Defence Agency (JDA) was forced to omit the replacement programmes due to budget constraints, but has already begun studies for competitions to start as early as 2008. Manufacturers hope that both programmes will begin in the first half of the JDA's next five-year plan from April 2010.

Tokyo currently has nine helicopter programmes, including its planned purchase of at least 14 AgustaWestland/Kawaskai KHI-01s for mine countermeasures and Antarctic support duties. The first of these has already flown in the UK and will be shipped to Kawasaki in July before being delivered to Japan's navy in March 2006.

The company will assemble the programme's remaining 13 planned aircraft at a rate of one a year, but needs to secure further business if the new assembly line is to become efficient. AgustaWestland's baseline EH101 is viewed as a strong candidate to replace the navy's UH-60Js, as the service is studying the use of a larger search and rescue aircraft.

Mitsubishi and Sikorsky have meanwhile started discussing a new variant of the H-60, which could attract support from Japan's air force, while NH Industries also plans to offer the NH90 for the requirement. Japan's army is looking for a new twin-engined utility helicopter as part of its UH-1J replacement study, but is also considering the remanufacture and upgrade of its existing fleet.

The JDA's only new near-term requirement is for a twin-engined training helicopter to replace its Hughes OH-6s, with an initial contract for one or two aircraft expected within the next three years. However, the programme will not be funded through the JDA's new budget because it does not involve frontline equipment.

AgustaWestland's A109, Euro­copter's EC135 and Kawasaki's BK117 are expected to contest the training requirement, which sources suggest will eventually total about 10 helicopters for the navy and potentially several more for other services.

BRENDAN SOBIE/TOKYO