Airbus Helicopters is already having “concrete discussions” with potential export buyers of its H160M Guepard medium-twin, as development activities for launch customer France accelerate.
Speaking to journalists at the airframer’s Marignane headquarters in the south of France on 18 May, Vincent Chenot, head of the H160M programme, said that Airbus was already seeing “significant interest” from the export market.
“We do already have concrete discussions with some countries,” he says. These are for both the naval and army versions, Chenot adds.
“We think we have all the key success factors in our hands to achieve this.”
Meanwhile, Airbus is working hard to meet France’s schedule, which sees deliveries to the army start within five years.
“We will start assembly of the first prototype after the summer this year,” he says, leading to a first flight in the second half of 2024. A second flight-test asset should arrive the same year, he adds.
France last year committed to acquire 169 examples of the 6t-class helicopter for all three branches of its armed forces under the HIL programme.
Deliveries of the H160M to the army are due to begin in 2027, followed by the navy in 2029, and the air force in 2030.
Qualification for the army’s helicopters will be received in 2027, followed by the other two variants around 24 months later.
However, Chenot points out that the staggered qualification process does not reflect an “intermediate then final approach”, simply that the naval and air force helicopters have additional mission equipment – folding blades for example – increasing the time required.
“We need two [prototypes] to share the workload. Both helicopters will contribute to the demonstration and verification activities for [all] variants,” he says.
Output will ramp up from 2027, hitting a “cruise phase” of 20 per year in 2032, says Chenot. Production for France is anticipated to last for 10 years, resulting in the delivery of 80 helicopters for the army, 49 for the navy, and 40 for the air force.
Just 30 units are specified under the initial French contract; Chenot anticipates another three order tranches “which will placed in line with industrial needs”.
The Guepard will feature Airbus Helicopters’ HForce modular weapons system, supporting a 12.7mm podded machine gun, and potentially laser-guided rockets.
However, the rockets are yet to be included within the scope of the programme, says Chenot; a decision on the armament and potential inclusion of an aerial refuelling probe on the air force’s helicopters will be made in 2023.
Flight tests involving an Airbus Defence & Space A400M have already taken place, ensuring “we have the aerodynamic qualities and the handling qualities for this [aerial refueling] mission”.
Deliveries of the civil H160 are already under way, with contractor Babcock earlier this week receiving the first of six units it will lease to the French navy for search and rescue missions as an interim replacement for the service’s Alouette III fleet.
Chenot believes sales of the H160M will be helped by the maturity of the civil variant and the production volumes involved, keeping costs down. Airbus Helicopters already has aircraft serial number 24 on its Marigane production line.
Although the Guepard uses the same Safran Helicopter Engines Arrano turboshafts – with the same 1,280shp (955kW) take-off power rating – as the commercial model, Chenot sees no need for this to increase.
“The important thing is that the customer is able to perform the missions they have with that helicopter. We have given them all the performance data and they have made their decision – they would not have ordered the aircraft if it wasn’t okay.”