Bell, Airbus Helicopters, and Leonardo are gearing up to address Canberra’s requirement for 20 special forces rotorcraft.

The requirement first emerged in a 2016 defence whitepaper, with a request for information (RFI) issued in September 2018.

David Sale, managing director for Bell Asia-Pacific, says his company is proposing two aircraft: the single-engine Bell 407 the twin-engine Bell 429. One requirement is that four helicopters can be accommodated in a Boeing C-17 for air transport.

Bell is in the process of confirming whether the C-17 can accommodate four 429s. Sale notes that Bell’s helicopters do not require a test flight after being transported by air.

Hawker Pacific, given its knowledge of the Australian market, will be the prime contractor for the Bell offering.

In March, Airbus Helicopters confirmed that it would bid for the requirement with the H145M.

“The Airbus H145M helicopter is the military version of the H145 – the most advanced member of Airbus’ multi-purpose twin-engine category,” said Airbus. “It is based on a commercial off-the-shelf platform with military-specific modifications and is an operationally proven, affordable and low-risk option for Australia.”

Another confirmed contender is Leonardo, which replied with three types: the AW109 Trekker, AW169M, and AW159. The eventual request for proposals will inform the company’s final offering.

“Leonardo’s proposed product range all meet the latest safety and certification standards, are fully commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) or military off-the-shelf (MOTS) solutions able to accommodate up to six troops and readily deployable by C-17 transport aircraft,” it says.

“All can be equipped with cargo hook, external rescue hoist, rappelling and searchlight capabilities, as well as FLIR cameras, video downlinks, landing-zone threat suppression, high ballistic tolerance and a modular interior layout for operational flexibility.”

One industry source understands that initial operating capability (IOC) is slated for 2022, with light weapons potentially added two years after this. The RFI, however, suggested deliveries would only start in 2023.

In addition to two pilots, the rotorcraft must carry an unspecified number of personnel inside the cabin with fast rope deployment capability. It appears Canberra prefers personnel to ride inside the cabin, as opposed to on external benches.

“The helicopter should be capable of being fitted with simple, proven, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment and weapons systems,” said the Department of Defence RFI statement.

“These light helicopters can be rapidly deployed in C-17s, and can insert, extract and provide fire support for small teams of special forces undertaking tasks ranging from tactical observation through to counter-terrorism missions, or hostage recovery.”