Fresh uncertainty has emerged over the scope of the UK’s New Medium Helicopter (NMH) programme after it emerged that defence officials intend to buy a fleet of six Airbus Helicopters H145s to be operated in Brunei and Cyprus.
An initial procurement document – a so-called ‘transparency notice’ – signalling the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) intention to pursue the single-source acquisition will be published in the coming days, potentially later today, according to two people with knowledge of the matter.
Although the UK already operates the H145 as the Jupiter HT1 trainer, the new batch of aircraft will be configured for search and rescue (SAR) and casualty evacuation missions in Brunei and Cyprus, FlightGlobal understands.
At present, those roles are performed by Royal Air Force Puma HC2s, with the type having taken over from now-retired Bell 212s and 412s.
In the longer term, replacement of the two Bell platforms was part of the NMH programme, through which the MoD is seeking to rationalise its fleet. Also up for replacement are the Pumas, plus the Airbus Helicopters Dauphins operated domestically for special forces support.
At its launch in May 2022, the MoD said it was seeking “a range of up to 44 platforms” for a total budget of £1.2 billion ($1.46 billion). Although the ministry maintains that the goal has not changed, evidence emerged earlier in the year that it was seeking a reduced buy of 25-35 airframes.
With the Cyprus and Brunei missions now apparently also removed from the NMH requirement, the lower end of the acquisition range appears likely.
Although a change of tack by the MoD, the H145 purchase still fulfills its aim of fleet rationalisation; cost savings should be realised from the commonality and existing support of the in-service fleet. It is also thought the NMH budget is not impacted by the move.
Sources indicate that the new H145s will retain the Jupiter name of their trainer counterparts. Although operated for military missions, the new batch will not be the dedicated M-model – which includes provision for armaments – FlightGlobal understands.
That is not unprecedented, however: Germany, for example, operates a seven-strong fleet of H145s for SAR missions.
Shortlisted contenders for the NMH competition are the Airbus Helicopters H175M, Leonardo Helicopters AW149, and Sikorsky S-70M.
However, the NMH procurement process has been stalled for several months, with the release date for the crucial Invitation to Negotiate (ITN) repeatedly pushed back. FlightGlobal understands that the ITN is now likely to be published in December.
Airbus Helicopters declines to comment, while the MoD was not immediately able to comment.
The MoD will hope that the latest acquisition is more successful than its previous direct purchase from Airbus Helicopters: in 2021 it bought five H135s as replacements for the Army Air Corps’ elderly Gazelle fleet, but those aircraft were mothballed without ever seeing service and are now up for sale.
In the meantime, the army’s last 14 Gazelles were retired at the end of October.