Airbus Helicopters will next week begin deliveries of the H145M rotorcraft to its German air force launch customer.
On 8 December, the service will receive the first two of an eventual 15 aircraft configured for special forces missions. Deliveries of the 3.7t helicopters, derived from the latest version of the civil model, will run until 2017.
In addition, the initial aircraft for the Royal Thai Navy and army, which have respective orders for five and six units, are also in an advanced stage of production at the manufacturer's Donauwörth facility in Germany. Deliveries will start in 2016.
Meanwhile, Airbus Helicopters is continuing development work as it looks to add offensive capabilities to the Turbomeca Arriel 2E-powered twin.
Germany's examples will be armed with retractable pintle-mounted M134 7.62mm miniguns, with initial test firings scheduled for April 2016. Further work will be performed next year to integrate other ballistic weapons not presently selected by any customer, including MAG 58 door guns and axially-configured 12.7mm guns and unguided rockets, says programme manager Scott Tumpak. These will be located on weapons pylons on either side of the helicopter, each with a 200kg (440lb) payload.
Test flights of the modifications, which have also passed the preliminary design review phase, were performed this year. Certification of the pylons is targeted for "no later than the second quarter", says Tumpak.
Structural changes required to the helicopter are "minimal", he says, and add only "a couple of kilos of weight".
Airbus Helicopters hopes to have the initial weapon system available to be fielded from 2019, he says. Guided munitions capability should then follow around one to two years later, although this could be advanced if there is customer demand.
However, Tumpak stresses there has been "no formal selection" of a particular missile or rocket so far.
The airframer is hopeful additional customers will be signed up in 2016, with interest expected to rise as the Luftwaffe's aircraft "become more mature and enter service". It believes the German air force helicopters can become an "extremely nice reference configuration" for potential operators willing to prioritise speed of delivery and cost over a more bespoke platform.
Production of the UH-72 Lakota for the US Army – based on the older EC145 civil helicopter – is also continuing at Donauwörth and in Columbus, Mississippi. Tumpak believes the service could eventually convert some of its remaining orders to the newer H145M, but concedes there are "no mature discussions moving in that direction".
In addition, he is hopeful Washington could eventually revive its interest in a helicopter able to perform the armed aerial scout (AAS) mission.
The Pentagon previously cancelled its AAS programme for a new platform to replace its aged Bell Helicopter OH-58 Kiowa Warrior fleet, instead moving Boeing AH-64 Apaches into the role; a move Tumpak describes as a "stop-gap measure".