Germany’s fleets of NH Industries (NHI) NH90s and Airbus Helicopters Tigers are again the subject of stinging criticism for their poor operational availability, with their performance branded as “unsatisfactory”.
Detailing the issues in the defence ministry’s latest operational readiness report, Inspector General Eberhard Zorn says that the helicopters operated by the three branches of the armed forces collectively demonstrated a readiness level of just 40% in the year to mid-December 2021, compared with an overall figure of 77% for the country’s 71 main weapon systems, or 65% for combat and transport aircraft.
Although an improvement on previous years, Zorn says, the figure is “still at too low a level” and is “unsatisfactory”.
While that is in some cases explained by the continued use of legacy rotorcraft such as the navy’s Westland Sea Lynx and Sea Kings, plus the Sikorsky CH-53Gs operated by the air force, Zorn singles out the army’s NH90 troop transports and Tiger attack helicopters for particular censure.
“The reason for the low level of operational readiness remains, especially with ‘complex’ helicopters like the NH90 TTH, NH90 Sea Lion or the Tiger attack helicopter, the very time-consuming maintenance and inspection systems as well as the ongoing retrofitting measures to harmonsise the build standard,” he says.
He cites the nine different sub-variants of NH90 operated by the armed forces as presenting a particular challenge to support from a logistics perspective; the need for specific spare parts, tooling and training have an “aggravating” effect, he says.
Retrofit activities on the NH90s conducted by NHI consortium member Airbus Helicopters in France have been time-consuming, he says, citing delivery delays of up to 12 months, not helped by Covid-19 restrictions.
Although maintenance timelines have reduced, says the report – halving the time taken under a previous contract – this was offset by spare parts shortages.
However, Zorn is hopeful this will improve from 2023, when a new centralised spare parts contract for all NH90 operators comes into effect.
NHI president Nathalie Tarnaud Laude recently acknowledged the manufacturer was falling short on maintenance and support provision and said it had begun a process to rectify the situation.
The German navy’s NH90 Sea Lions have also shown low availability levels, but this is in part due to the programme still being in its early stages and the disproportionate impact of absences on a small fleet; Cirium fleets data records just five examples in service.
Meanwhile, the operational readiness level of the Tiger “continues to be an unsatisfactory one”.
This has been driven by a “traffic jam” at repair depot level due to a lack of capacity. Efforts to reduce the backlog will begin in 2023, but will not be completed before 2026, the report warns.
A separate process to streamline the maintenance process is also in train, with steps to be implemented until 2026 to “achieve a significant increase in material readiness”.
Older helicopters such as the CH-53G, Sea King and Sea Lion suffer from “age-related susceptibility to malfunctions and a difficult spare parts situation” and can only “be maintained with great effort”, Zorn notes.
The only rotorcraft not to attract criticism is the Airbus Helicopters H145M – flown by both the army and air force – although the operation of the type in Africa’s sandy environment did pose some challenges.
Elsewhere, Zorn offers a relatively positive assessment of the Airbus Defence & Space A400M, which he describes as the “go-to tool” during the evacuation of Afghanistan.
Up to 10 A400Ms were available during the period, from a total fleet of 35, the report says. The focus is now on improving the transport’s military capabilities, it says.
However, Zorn adds: “The unsatisfactory technical product maturity of the A400M continues to result in increased maintenance costs, which clearly exceed the capacities of the air force.
“I therefore welcome that the related activities to improve the situation are now being coordinated and vigorously pursued by a steering group led by the [defence ministry] with the involvement of industry to sustainably improve the material readiness of the A400M.”
Little is said about the air force’s Eurofighter fleet, other than to note the overall positive trend in availability, aided by improved access to spare parts.
But it is a different story for the Luftwaffe’s elderly Panavia Tornado fleet, where material readiness is “increasingly challenging” to maintain and “can only be ensured with great effort”.
Repair times have also extended enormously: a 300h inspection that used to take 60 working days to complete now lasts for 180 work days, and the duration of a depot-level inspection has risen to 18 months from eight months previously.
“In addition, the risk of obsolescence that can no longer be controlled increases with every day of operation,” says Zorn, noting to the appearance of cracks in the refuelling probe and components that are no longer repairable.
Germany is attempting to procure a successor to the Tornado, enabling its retirement by 2030.