It is always good to the start the new year with positive news. To that end, Leonardo’s helicopter division and the UK Ministry of Defence held a press conference on 9 January to trumpet a £271 million ($330 million) five-year support contract for the country’s 62-strong fleet of AW159 Wildcat rotorcraft.

Work will be carried out at Yeovil and, in the words of Harriett Baldwin, the minister for defence procurement, “helps to secure hundreds of skilled jobs” across the region.

However, closer inspection of the press release shows that it is not new work: the 30-year Wildcat Integrated Training and Support contract was awarded in 2012 – the latest agreement merely confirms a price for the next five-year period.

With the final Wildcat delivered to the UK armed forces – an AH1 for the British Army – in late 2016, along with the final examples for export customer South Korea, the Yeovil facility has a backlog of just two AW159s, both destined for the Philippines.

Baldwin rules out the UK placing any further orders but says the government is committed to assisting the company to secure further export deals.

The Yeovil plant, she notes, supports almost 3,000 skilled people directly and another 17,000 jobs across the southwest of the country.

“We are working very closely with Leonardo on the export pipeline,” she says, where its network of defence attachés is “really making the case for UK-manufactured equipment”.

Despite the minister’s claim that her tour of the factory had revealed “many aircraft in the liveries of other countries”, aside from those for the Philippines, the only other overseas aircraft on show were three Lynx Mk21As from Brazil, the first helicopters from an ongoing upgrade programme.

Leonardo urgently needs to secure additional commitments for the AW159, although a break in production seems inevitable given the current backlog.

“This is the year when we hope to win other contracts on the AW159 and AW101,” says John Ponsonby, managing director of Leonardo‘s helicopter business in the UK.

AW159 RN

Crown Copyright

Stefano Bortoli, the company’s senior vice-president of sales and strategic sourcing, says it is involved in a “handful” of campaigns for the naval variant of the Wildcat, but declines to be more specific.

Bangladesh and Malaysia are both reported to be in the market for naval helicopters, but the AW159 faces stiff competition, notably from the Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk, which, thanks to the USA’s Foreign Military Sales process, has something of an advantage over its UK-built rival.

Leonardo’s decision last year to bring AW159 airframe construction back in-house from supplier GKN could offer it a means of making the programme more competitively priced. It has hinted that it could transfer the work to PZL Swidnik – its under-employed Polish operation – if the UK MoD, which owns the jigs and tooling, sanctions the move.

“It is all about selling 159s first of all,” says Bortoli. Moving production to Poland “depends on who would be the customer and what kind of competitive proposition we could deliver”.

If it “could propose something palatable” to the customer, that would determine if it “was a UK-built airframe or not”, he says.

For her part, Baldwin is adamant that the government has not received any request from Leonardo to take ownership of the tooling, and that it has made no decision either way.

“They are UK government-owned and [any request] will be evaluated in terms of context, not only the value for money for the UK MoD but for the UK’s industrial strategy. That is clearly our equipment,” she says.

Although final assembly, and the positions that supports, would still be in the UK, government permission will be seen as tacit approval of moving jobs out of the country. (However, with no orders, there is no airframe work anyway.)

Germany, too, represents an opportunity as it looks to replace its navy’s Sea Lynx fleet from around 2023. Ponsonby confirms that early contact has been made with Berlin and argues that the Wildcat would be “a very good fit for the requirement”.

However, by that point the UK is likely to have left the EU, potentially scuppering any purchase from a common market stalwart.



Yeovil’s other main programme, the 15.6t AW101 Merlin, is in better shape however, as Leonardo works through a backlog of about 30 helicopters, the majority for Italy (nine of 15 remain) and Norway (16), as well as an undisclosed number for Indonesia.

Nonetheless, further orders are required to keep production ticking over, argues Bortoli, otherwise Yeovil’s activities will be confined to overhaul and upgrades, as well as “some transmission work, some blade composite work”.

“But final assembly lines for the AW159 and AW101 are vital for retaining Yeovil in the same configuration as it is now. We want to maintain it, but we can only do that if we win some export contracts,” he says.

In the longer term, it hopes to benefit from a 10-year strategic partnering agreement it struck with the UK government in July 2016.

This, says Ponsonby, covers activities on “key rotary-wing requirements in the future, including the medium multi-role capability [MMRC] and unmanned helicopters”.

Ponsonby stresses that it is not a “contractual commercial agreement” and it is still “early days”, but initial work on an unmanned technology demonstrator has already begun, dating from a contract awarded last year.

The MMRC – a replacement for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy’s respective fleets of Airbus Helicopters Pumas and Merlins – would enter service in the 2030s, according to defence ministry plans.

At this stage, any talks are about finding out “what the MoD wants in the mid-2030s”, says Ponsonby.

“It is an opportunity to bring the teams together,” he says. “We are the home team and working with the home customer to understand their requirements.

“That doesn’t mean we will end up being awarded the contract. But it is bringing us, as an onshore design capability in the UK, closer to the customer.”

But with the MoD’s recent rotary-wing contract awards heading to Airbus Helicopters and Boeing – for training and attack helicopters, respectively – Leonardo could be forgiven for wanting a clear demonstration that it is seen as the home team.