Airbus Helicopters insists its site in Broughton, North Wales will host the only final assembly line (FAL) for the H175M, and says a proposed joint facility for the military rotorcraft in Saudi Arabia will be focused solely on customisation and completion activities.
The airframer is offering the super-medium-twin for the UK’s ongoing New Medium Helicopter (NMH) requirement and, if successful, intends to locate the H175M assembly line in Broughton, where the group already builds commercial aircraft wings.
In addition to assembling up to 44 airframes for the Royal Air Force (RAF), Airbus Helicopters has previously said the UK plant would also manufacture all H175Ms for the export market.
But a recent agreement with Saudi defence firm SCOPA Industries – signed on the sidelines of the Paris air show – seemed to throw that commitment into question.
Reuters quoted SCOPA’s chief executive Fawaz Alakeel as saying the pact covered the joint production of civil and military helicopters in the kingdom. Other media outlets said the deal would see the H175M manufactured in Saudi Arabia.
Airbus Helicopters, however, clarifies that the agreement is for a “customisation and completion centre for the H175M” which, it says, is a “a very welcome reminder of the global interest in this advanced new helicopter.”
And briefing journalists at the Royal International Air Tattoo on 14 July, Lenny Brown, managing director of Airbus Helicopters UK, underlined that position.
“Let me be absolutely clear: the H175M will only be produced in Broughton in Wales and will only be exported from Broughton in Wales,” he says.
“We have said that if Saudi Arabia wants to create some sort of design and ability to do some customisation locally, that’s absolutely fine.
“That’s bread and butter stuff that we do [in terms of offset provision], but they will not have a FAL inside Saudi Arabia.”
However, it remains unclear whether Airbus Helicopters would maintain its commitment to Broughton if the H175M does not win the NMH contest.
Brown describes such questions as “hypothetical”, noting that there is no other customer ahead of the UK: “At the moment, the facts are NMH is the lead customer, is the launch customer, and the rest will follow.”
He stresses that the export market is vital for the overall success of the H175M; if solely focused on deliveries for the NMH programme, production would last just five to seven years, he says, providing only short-term employment benefit to the UK.
“So, part of the export [rationale] is to make sure that those are jobs for life.”
Airbus Helicopters forecasts the H175M could attract around 500 orders globally.
Brown sees the H175M as remaining in service until at least 2040 and the arrival of a new helicopter developed through the NATO-led Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) project.
Selection of the H175M could provide a development “stepping stone” and a way to “stress test” future technologies destined for the NGRC, a programme being spearheaded by six alliance members, including France and the UK.
“It’s an ideal opportunity for UK [Ministry of Defence] to develop systems within the H175M that will go into NGRC,” he says.
Airbus Helicopters is one of three companies left in the NMH contest following a down-select in October 2022. However, the acquisition remains in limbo until the Ministry of Defence (MoD) launches the next part of the tender process, a milestone anticipated “not before September”, says Brown.
As it waits for the release of the Invitation to Negotiate (ITN), which will lay out the precise requirements for the NMH, Airbus Helicopters has continued refining its industrial plan, UK supply chain, and domestic training and support network as part of its so-called H175M Task Force.
Brown says the company has carried out a “highly detailed design for the FAL”, drawing on experience elsewhere in the group; standing up the facility would be “very low risk”, he adds.
Should the H175M be selected, then a first delivery within 18 to 24 months “is certainly do-able”, he says, although this would be driven by customer requirements.
Additional early design activity relating to potential cabin configurations has been conducted by partner Spirit AeroSystems in preparation for the release of the ITN.
“We have done a quite a lot of what I would say [is] ahead-of-the-drag-curve work,” says Nick Laird, managing director of Spirit AeroSystems UK.
Better known as an aerostructures manufacturer, Spirit’s involvement opens the door to potentially increasing the amount of UK content on the H175M; Laird sees potential to “leverage our advanced, award-winning composite technologies” onto the platform.
“We are very much looking to see what the ITN states in order get into detailed discussions on main component assemblies here in the UK.”
Brown says the partnership with Spirit is a key element of its bid, enabling it to better address export requirements. “By having resilience in our supply chain we will be able to cope with increased demand,” he says.
Other H175M Task Force members include Babcock (maintenance), Boeing Defence UK (training), and Pratt & Whitney Canada, which supplies the helicopter’s PT6C-67E engines.
The grouping was recently bolstered by the addition of MRO provider Heli-One, which will overhaul H175M gearboxes in Aberdeen. Heli-One is owned by offshore rotorcraft specialist CHC Helicopter, which operates the civil H175 on crew-change missions.
The NMH is designed to replace four helicopter types in UK service, with the RAF’s 23 Puma HC2s the most numerous.
Although the UK’s Pumas were assembled in Yeovil by what was then Westland – a forebear of Leonardo Helicopters – Airbus Helicopters is the effective OEM for the type. It was also responsible for upgrading the RAF’s Pumas to their current HC2 standard and also supports the service’s operational fleet.
Brown says the Pumas could easily stay in service “beyond 2030” as the airframe is not life-limited: “It’s got no life [limit] so it could go on and on.”
Airbus Helicopters is contracted to support the RAF’s Pumas until 2025 – the current retirement date for the transport – but defence chiefs have recently indicated they could consider a service extension until 2027-2028.
Asked if the airframer was in talks with the MoD about a possible extension to its support arrangement, Brown says that is “not off the table”.