Airbus Helicopters insists it can overcome obstacles related to Chinese content on its H175 should the super-medium-twin be offered as a replacement for the UK Royal Air Force’s Puma fleet.
No military variant of the 7.8t H175 has so far been developed, in part due to restrictions related to substantial Chinese involvement on the civil programme, which is a joint development with Avicopter.
But Colin James, managing director of Airbus Helicopters UK, says the company would have no difficulty in providing a military version without the Chinese content.
While declining to reveal the precise details of the plans, James says: “We have a viable solution and we know how we would do it”.
“It is very feasible and there are scenarios for providing that aircraft without that problem,” he says.
He also notes that the current civil version of the H175 already has 10-15% of UK content.
In its recent Command Paper defence review document, London announced that it intends to withdraw the Puma from service in the mid-2020s, replacing it with a platform it calls the New Medium Helicopter (NMH).
Airbus Helicopters delivered a significant mid-life upgrade to the Puma fleet in the early part of last decade, adding new engines and avionics, which could have seen the platform operated into the 2030s.
While James says he is “disappointed” by the retirement decision, he understands the strategic rationale for the move as the UK eyes a next-generation capability in the 2040s.
No details of the requirements for the NMH have so far been revealed, although a team has been stood up within the Ministry of Defence to work on its plans.
Although the Puma is due to depart by mid-decade, James questions the realism of that, noting the time it takes to get a new aircraft into service.
He believes that once the procurement process begins and “sanity checks start being made”, 2027-2028 will emerge as a “more realistic timeframe” for the Puma’s departure, unless a capability gap can be tolerated.
While Airbus Helicopters UK is located at Oxford Airport, expansion of the site may not be required to house an assembly line for the NMH, as the wider Airbus group has a “lot of real estate in the UK”.
“Whatever solution we would employ would be to create sustainability and future business,” he says, including the production of helicopters for the export market. And while final assembly is one aspect of the process, bolstering the level of UK content on the H175 is also key, he stresses.
Should a larger platform be required, Airbus Helicopters has also touted the 11t H225 and NH Industries NH90 as possible solutions for the NMH requirement.
Any proposal of the NH90 is complicated by the make-up of the NHI consortium, which includes Leonardo Helicopters and Fokker as shareholders. “It would simply require Airbus and Leonardo to cooperate”, says James.
Leonardo Helicopters has long pitched the 8.6t AW149 as an ideal Puma replacement which it would build at its site in Yeovil, the UK. The type is currently produced at the airframer’s main final assembly line in Vergiate, Italy and has secured two customers since launch in 2006: Thailand and, more recently, Egypt.
Although in many quarters the NMH contest is seen as Leonardo Helicopters’ to lose, James insists that as “the incumbent” Airbus Helicopters does not feel it is the underdog.
“[Airbus] has a very, very good record of bringing export success to the UK,” he says. “Everything our competitors have to offer, Airbus also has to offer, and more.”