France is likely to issue a preliminary development contract for its hélicoptère interarmées léger (HIL) programme by the end of the year, to allow manufacturer Airbus Helicopters to begin initial risk-reduction activities.

In March Paris selected the airframer's developmental H160 medium-twin to serve as a basis for the HIL effort, which will replace more than 400 helicopters across all three services.

Deliveries are scheduled to start in around 2024, with between 160 and 190 aircraft to be procured.

That timeline would require a firm acquisition contract about two years after the initial agreement.

Airbus Helicopters has previously focused the development of the H160 on civil missions, with the 5.6t rotorcraft due to enter service in 2019.

Bernard Fujarski, senior vice-president and head of the H160 programme, says the selection of the H160 is a significant boost.

"We are talking about a very significant quantity of helicopters to sell the three services for more or less the complete catalogue of missions," he says.

"We are working in order to be on time in order to be compliant with the specification we will get from the French ministry of defence."

He acknowledges that using a single type to replace helicopters straddling multiple weight classes is a "challenge" and that it will not be "optimised everywhere".

However, Fujarski points out that a "rationalised" maintenance, support and training system will drive savings for the French services.

Once it is in operation with France, Airbus Helicopters is also likely to offer the Safran Helicopter Engines Arrano-powered H160M to the export market.