The expected uplift in helicopter orders to serve lighter, mobile armed forces has failed to materialise, but competition for a handful of major deals is fierce

Military helicopter sales, in theory, should be booming as the world's armed forces move towards becoming lighter and more mobile. However, despite all the talk suggesting such changes are just around the corner, the number of recent helicopter orders is small.

There have been orders, with the manufacturers of the Mi-8/17 family doing particularly well, but not nearly as many as an observer would perhaps expect.

Although there are a number of on-going competitions, they have tended to slip continuously. Canada's Maritime Helicopter Programme, to replace Sikorsky CH-124 Sea Kings that are nearly 40 years old, essentially dates back to the cancellation of an AgustaWestland EH101 order by Canadian prime minister Jean Cretien's previous administration in the early 1990s. It has continuously been pushed further out since it was restarted in 1998. Now the contenders, AgustaWestland, NH Industries/Lockheed Martin Canada (offering the MH90), and Sikorsky (H-92) and the Canadian Forces must be hoping that Cretien is true to his promises and retires early next year, allowing the troubled programme to progress.

Coming competitions

Other large competitions include Singapore's naval helicopter requirement that should go to downselect shortly.

Australia's Air 9000 programme is more complex as it seeks to wrap the Australian Defence Force's helicopter fleets into a single cohesive whole, with one prime contractor providing solutions for all needs.

Perhaps the most significant forthcoming competition will be the US Marine Corps' requirement for new VXX presidential transports. Contenders are an AgustaWestland/Bell/Lockheed Martin team offering an Americanised EH101, dubbed the US101, competing against an upgraded Sikorsky H-92, with more powerful engines and a BAE Systems fly-by-wire flight control system.

The competition is fierce, with claim and counter-claim from the combatants. Although the VXX requirement is small - six machines by 2007-8 and 23 by 2011 - if the Sikorsky VH-3 and VH-60 are both replaced, a victory would also be a major coup for the winning bidder. It could also lead to a far larger USAir Force order for combat search-and-rescue machines.

Many give theUS101 with its European heritage little chance as it would be unprecedented for the US president to fly in a non-US product. Others note that even if the US101 is successful, there is no guarantee that the USAF would order the same type - creating a US production line for a few VXX helicopters could be financially crippling for the US101 team.

While Western manufacturers slug it out for a handful of major deals, the Russian helicopter makers have been successful in the last couple of years fulfilling orders of varying sizes all around the world, including in some unlikely markets, such as South Korea, which purchased Kamov Ka-32s, despite Seoul's strong ties to the USA.

Russian and other CIS manufacturers have the benefit of low costs and mature designs that can be produced for, in some cases, 20% of the equivalent Western machine. If the customer requires modern European or US avionics, these are available, notably for Kazan's machines, which are offered with a Honeywell flightdeck. The installation has been designed by Canada's Kelowna Flightcraft.

The large numbers of ex-Soviet machines in service is encouraging a number of companies to develop upgrades for these helicopters. Potentially, the largest deal is a Visegrad-nation (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) upgrade of more than 100 Mil Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters to bring them into line with NATO standards.

The programme appears to be coming apart, with the Czech Republic and Poland likely to issue separate requests for tenders by the end of this year. Nevertheless, there is a strong possibility that all four nations will end up with some form of commonality between the upgraded machines.

UK upgrades

The UK is also considering the upgrade of existing machines to meet its future requirements. The Battlefield Light Utility Helicopter (BLUH) for the British Army and Surface Combatant Maritime Rotorcraft (SCMR)programmes would take Westland Lynxs and provide "new machines".

Westland is performing a study for the UK Ministry of Defence that is due to be concluded this year. One issue that appears to have surfaced is the extent to which the current helicopters can donate systems and components for the next generation of machines.

The balance between retaining the old and integrating the new has been a problem in a number of US programmes, including the Sikorsky MH-60R, which was to have involved rebuilt SH-60B and SH-60Fmaritime helicopters. Problems with the programme led to a decision to build new airframes. The USMC's Bell AH-1Z and UH-1Yupgrades of the SuperCobra attack helicopter and venerable "Huey" utility machine have also run into problems, mostly with the new cockpit.

Upgrades are a popular solution to emerging helicopter requirements but they can be as expensive and more difficult to implement than building new machines. So while this approach will limit the number of new machines built, there is also plenty of potential to manufacture new airframes.

Source: Flight International