Norway is to push ahead with an upgrade of its elderly Bell 412 helicopters and postpone a recapitalisation of its rotorcraft fleet around a single aircraft family, a move that goes against the advice of the head of its armed forces.
An immediate impact of the decision is that the acquisition of new helicopters to support the nation’s special forces will be delayed for at least 15 years.
In the interim, Oslo will upgrade nine of the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s 412s for the special forces mission, pushing the helicopters’ operational life well past the 50-year mark.
Norway on 26 June announced that it was to spend NKr1 billion ($92 million) on the upgrade, extending the fleet’s operation by “at least 15 years”. The 412s were previously scheduled for replacement in 2026.
Cirium fleets data records Norway’s 18-strong 412 fleet as having been delivered between 1987 and 1989.
However, the move is counter to recent recommendations from Norway’s chief of defence on the country’s future force structure and procurement priorities.
Published on 7 June, General Eirik Kristoffersen’s report, Security in Uncertain Times, is intended to inform the defence ministry’s long-term plan, to be presented to law-makers next year.
Citing an “imbalance between the armed forces’ tasks, structure and finances”, Kristoffersen says they must be adapted to match future spending plans.
“The Chief of Defence recommends that the Royal Norwegian Air Force should not upgrade its Bell 412 helicopter capabilities and that the helicopters be phased out at the end of their life cycle,” the report states.
“In addition, ongoing procurement processes relating to new tactical transport helicopters for the army and special forces will be terminated.”
Instead, Kristoffersen recommends that “the further development of the armed forces’ helicopter fleet be assessed holistically and be based on one helicopter family.
“This means that future procurement of anti-submarine helicopters, special forces helicopters and transport helicopters must emphasise cost-effective training, procurement and operation.”
With Norway already planning to acquire an initial six Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk maritime helicopters as a partial replacement for its axed NH Industries (NHI) NH90 fleet, the recommendations could open the door for further purchases from the US manufacturer.
Oslo announced in June 2022 that it was tearing up its contract with NHI and mothballing the 13 NH90s it was operating for anti-submarine warfare and coastguard support missions in a long-running dispute over delivery delays and availability rates.
Kristoffersen says Norway should prioritise the acquisition of ASW helicopters, followed by those for special forces missions, and then medium-class transports.
“If the financial situation does not allow for two helicopter variants, the armed forces should procure one helicopter type that can meet the needs of both the special forces and other parties,” he adds.
Norwegian defence minister Bjorn Arild Gram says the aim, subject to parliamentary approval, is to have the upgraded 412s operational by 2025.
In response to questions from FlightGlobal, the Norwegian defence ministry: “Due to the contract termination of the NH90, and the acquisition of new maritime helicopters, there is a need to ensure that future decisions regarding special forces helicopters are made within a unified assessment regarding helicopters as a whole for the Norwegian armed forces.
“The government´s decision to proceed with an upgrade of nine Bell 412 helicopters is based on a recommendation from the armed forces.
“Further assessments and timelines related to implementation of special forces helicopters and the non-upgraded Bell 412s will be reviewed as a part of the new long-term plan process.”