Leonardo Helicopters continues to enhance its AW149 super-medium-twin, with the integration of laser-guided and unguided rockets onto the platform, as the start of the UK’s New Medium Helicopter (NMH) procurement nears.
A successful firing campaign took place in the final quarter of 2021 in an undisclosed European country, says the manufacturer. No details of the weapon system on test have been revealed, however.
Leonardo Helicopters says the activity was conducted “based on evolving market requirements” rather than at the request of a customer.
Tests assessed the safe separation of the rockets in hover and forward flight, refinements to the cockpit symbology for the unguided munitions, and the impact on sensor and night-vision goggle performance during “ripple” firings in darkness.
The tests were carried out using a company-owned AW149 demonstrator, MSN49006, which has previously been presented both as the military version and the AW189 civil variant.
Leonardo Helicopters is pitching the AW149 as its candidate for the NMH programme, which seeks to replace with a single platform four rotorcraft types currently in the UK’s inventory, chiefly the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) 23-strong Puma fleet.
Procurement activity for NMH is due to begin shortly, with a pre-qualification questionnaire due to be issued before the end of March. Service entry for the selected helicopter is still targeted for 2025.
Helping to shape the requirements is the UK’s Joint Helicopter Command (JHC). Speaking at Defence IQ’s recent International Military Helicopter conference in London, a senior JHC leader said that the organisation is “open minded to whatever’s out there”.
However, the official says it is crucial that the helicopter has “growth potential” from a modular open source architecture, to allow the future addition of new capabilities and mission systems.
But with the NMH due to replace four different types – Bell 212s and 412s, and Airbus Helicopters Dauphins as well as the Pumas – concerns have been raised that the programme is over-ambitious in its scope.
The JHC officer denies this is the case, however. “There is real utility in having a large fleet that serves many outputs. It brings sustainment benefits, for example.”
The officer is also supportive of the decision to use the RAF’s Puma fleet as an interim capability to backfill for the retiring 212 and 412 fleets in Brunei and Cyprus, respectively.
Meanwhile, Bell is hopeful its 525 Relentless could be a strong candidate for the NMH requirement, provided certification for the super-medium-twin aligns with the UK’s acquisition timeline.
Speaking at the International Military Helicopter conference, Joel Best, director of EUMECAA global military sales and strategy at the airframer, said that airworthiness approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is scheduled for the fourth quarter of this year. However, he points out that the timeline will be governed by the regulator.
Whether that is too late for the NMH contest will depend on how quickly the Ministry of Defence proceeds with its procurement.
Best notes that “the UK doesn’t really embrace being an early adopter of new technology” and might shy away from becoming the launch customer for a brand new helicopter.
But if there is any delay to the procurement timeline “we will be here in spades”, says Best, who touts the 9.3t 525’s credentials as a “next-generation rotorcraft”.
“It’s going to be a great aircraft. We are very excited at the capability it is going to bring – not only to the oil and gas industry, we also want to see it in a military modified role,” he says.
Best touts the 525’s maximum cruise speed of 160kt (296km/h) and 520nm (960km) range, plus its fly-by-wire controls, as key attributes.
“We will have to see if we are able to get in line with the [schedule] requirements,” he says.
Depending on how the procurement is structured, London could ask for relatively high levels of domestic content on the NMH. Both Leonardo Helicopters and Airbus Helicopters have promised to build their respective AW149 and H175M candidates in the UK should they be selected.
While acknowledging that it would be a “challenge” to localise final assembly, Best points out that Bell has proposed a “very robust package” of industrial participation related to the 525 for an undisclosed European country that is seeking new medium/heavy helicopters for parapublic use.
There is a possibility to “look at large-scale industrial co-operation for a large-scale programme of record”, he says.