With the UK set to replace its Royal Air Force (RAF) fleet of 23 Puma HC2 helicopters by the middle of this decade, the contenders are already lining up.
But the competition will be one of the first major procurements in the country to be conducted under new rules designed to make economic and social factors a core part of the selection process, potentially tilting the field.
At this stage of the process much still remains unknown: the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced the retirement of the Pumas in its Command Paper Defence in a competitive age published on 22 March. That called for the twin-engined platform to be replaced by a New Medium Helicopter (NMH) by the middle of the decade.
A team has been stood up within the MoD to draft the requirements for the contest, but there is no indication yet as to when these might be released.
“Work on this programme is at a very early stage, with effort primarily focused on developing and refining key user requirements for the new medium helicopter. Therefore, details in relation to the procurement strategy, basing locations, fleet size, delivery schedule and organisational structure are being assessed,” says the British Army, to which FlightGlobal was directed for a response.
Complicating the issue slightly is the decision to also use the NMH to replace three niche fleets used by the military: understood to be army-operated Bell 212 and 412 transports, and Aerospatiale-built AS365 Dauphins which are used to support special forces personnel. The move to bring these within the scope of NMH will have a bearing on both the size of the platform and the quantity to be acquired.
If all current aircraft are replaced on a one-to-one basis, perhaps as many as 40 helicopters could be required under NMH.
So far, the only two manufacturers to declare a definite interest are Airbus Helicopters and Leonardo Helicopters. US airframers Bell and Sikorsky, meanwhile, are waiting for more detail before deciding whether to propose their respective 525 and UH-60M Black Hawk.
Leonardo Helicopters’ participation – as the UK’s only rotorcraft manufacturer – was a nailed-on certainty: it has been touting the credentials of its AW149 as a Puma replacement for several years and clearly views the jobs that such a contract would support as weighing heavily in its favour.
But despite being on the market since 2006, sales of the AW149 have been underwhelming: it has been selected by just two customers, the Royal Thai Air Force (5) and Egypt (24); deliveries to the latter are ongoing.
Airbus Helicopters, meanwhile, has indicated that it could offer the H175 or H225M for the NMH contest, depending on the exact requirement, or even the NH Industries NH90, in which it has a majority 62.5% stake, alongside Leonardo Helicopters (32%) and Fokker (5.5%). These span the weight range from 7.8t to 11.5t.
None of these helicopters are without issues, however: no military version of the H175 has so far been developed, largely due to Chinese involvement in programme; the civil version of the Super Puma carries significant reputational baggage, even if the underlying causes of a fatal 2016 crash are now fully understood; and the NH90, while an advanced platform with fly-by-wire controls, seems unable to shake off a problematic reputation.
There also remains the question of whether the UK would really seek to rejoin a programme it left in 1987 while still in its very early stages. And there would need to be an agreement with Leonardo Helicopters to include it in any offer.
But at least Airbus Helicopters can point to a range of options; Leonardo’s approach is essentially AW149 or bust. It has no other platform in its range until the AW101, which with its three engines and 15.6t maximum take-off weight is anything but medium.
Leonardo can of course point to its existing final assembly facility in the UK and supporting supply chain as items in its favour. It says that should the AW149 be selected, this “would establish a cutting-edge new production line in Yeovil” and estimates that “between 60-70% of content and through-life support” will be provided by UK companies. Export potential is also clear.
The airframer is also to the point when asked if it would support the NH90 being offered, or whether it has had any dialogue on the topic with its partner Airbus Helicopters.
“Leonardo’s solution for the UK’s New Medium Helicopter requirement is the AW149. We cannot comment further until we understand the requirements of the UK MoD,” it says.
For its part, Airbus Helicopters has indicated that should it offer the H175, there would be a big opportunity for UK suppliers – components currently sourced from its Chinese partners would need replacing after all – adding to the roughly 10-15% of UK content currently on the civil variant.
Final assembly of the H175M would also take place in the UK, for both domestic and export customers. While local assembly of the H225M or NH90 would also be theoretically possible, existing production lines – several in the case of the latter – would likely rule out any export potential.
However, the airframer emphasises the “sustainability” of its approach for both itself and the UK’s rotorcraft industry; sustainment activities, upgrades and supply chain participation can all create more value over the longer term than a single final assembly facility, it notes.
Consideration of the long-term effects of any purchase will be central as the MoD shifts to a new acquisition model that does not prioritise cost or capability over other considerations.
Contained in the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy (DSIS) document published at the same time as the Command Paper, the new guidance sees military procurement fulfilling a broader need.
“The DSIS is part of a broader, consistent, government drive to promote both our national security in its traditional sense, and the economic growth which both underpins and depends on that security,” it says.
It should, says the document, be viewed in the context of wider policy initiatives as part of the government’s levelling up agenda “to promote economic growth that is distributed more equitably across the UK”.
In addition, a minimum 10% weighting towards the “social value” of a contract will be applied in competitions after 1 June, to ensure that “the government takes into account the effect of different procurement options on wider policy objectives, including on the industrial base”.
Although helicopter manufacturing is not among the three “strategic priorities” – nuclear, cyber and encryption – capabilities for which must be maintained onshore, it is seen as part of a wider mix that ensures operational independence.
Previous helicopter investments have benefitted the “UK industrial base” and mean “the UK is still able to design and develop new rotary-wing capabilities” or integrate new weapons and systems, it says.
“This has been enabled by the close relationship the UK MoD has with Leonardo Helicopters through the Strategic Partnering Arrangement, which ensures that together we maximise the opportunities across our current systems, future requirements and exports.”
Maintenance of that capability is vital so the UK can access “the know-how to support and upgrade our fleets to respond quickly to changing threats and operational needs”. Plus, an industrial footprint – the design, engineering and manufacturing skills – will allow the country to help lead the development of a next-generation rotorcraft to arrive in the 2040s. The UK is one of five countries currently involved in a NATO capability study, alongside France, Germany, Greece and Italy.
On that basis, while there are those on the operator side of the fence that would really like to see the RAF flying Black Hawks, the DSIS appears to rule out, or at least make harder, a straightforward purchase under the USA’s Foreign Military Sales process. And would Sikorsky countenance another UH-60 production line? An existing European facility at Polish subsidiary PZL Mielec would likely weigh against that, but perhaps more value for UK industry could be found in a long-term industrial partnership with the US manufacturer, if it could accommodate such a move.
While the Black Hawk is a combat-proven helicopter, and would also offer the benefit of interoperability with London’s biggest ally, if capability is not the be-all and end-all of a procurement, would participating in the supply chain do enough to maintain the UK’s design and development capabilities?
Is the contest Leonardo’s to lose? Until the MoD reveals its requirements it is impossible to say. But for any manufacturer trying to supplant the firm’s special status in the UK, the question has become: what can you offer that it does not already?