A senior army officer says the UK military is still evaluating how to replace its combined medium-category transport helicopters, but has warned European industry that unless it develops a future rotorcraft that offers a step-change in speed and range capability, then it may instead select US-built products.
At present, the Royal Air Force's fleet of Airbus Helicopters Puma HC2s have an out-of-service date of 2025, followed by the Leonardo Helicopters AW101 Merlin HM2s and HC4/4As in 2029 and 2030, respectively. However, work is ongoing to understand the feasibility of extending their service lives.
Speaking at SMI's Helicopter Technology Central and Eastern Europe conference in Prague on 23 May, Lt Col David Amlot from the British Army Air Corps, said if replacement of the two types was delayed, the timeline could "effectively align" with the introduction of Future Vertical Lift in the US inventory.
Although FVL is not yet a programme of record, a technology demonstration phase is under way with Bell Helicopter developing its V-280 Valor tiltrotor and a combined Sikorsky-Boeing team working on the SB-1 Defiant compound rotorcraft.
Both are designed to fly faster and further than the current fleet of Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks. If FVL is launched on schedule, and focused on the medium-weight class, it would deliver a new helicopter in the mid-2030s.
But recent statements from the US Army have hinted that a lighter helicopter for the armed scout mission may become the priority.
Amlot says the UK is looking for a "revolution" in performance, rather than "sustainment" of the status quo, quoting a desired speed, range and performance not achieved by conventional rotorcraft designs.
"We are keen to know if any other manufacturer is doing something similar to Bell or Sikorsky, but our studies to date have not revealed anything," he says.
"If we want to be truly revolutionary in terms of our capability, we only see one programme out there."
While Amlot acknowledges that the UK is "not committed to following FVL", noting that another direct procurement from the USA would not fully support the country's industrial agenda, "it is the programme we are most closely aligned to", based on current timelines.
Questioned by an Airbus Helicopters representative, Amlot remains insistent, noting that during market surveys of Europe's helicopter manufacturers, none of their current or development programmes can fly "revolutionary degrees faster".
He acknowledges that although the French airframer's H160M offers a number of advancements in terms of its acoustic signature and use of carbonfibre, it is "not in the area we anticipate the need to service in the 2030-40 timeframe".
And despite its clean-sheet design, the H160M is "still based on 1960s rotorcraft technology", he says.
British Army studies suggest that a total of around 800 orders would be required to support a "bespoke" European development programme; the service calculates that militaries across the continent require only a maximum of 450 medium-class helicopters in the 2030-2040 period.
However, separate forecasts from a NATO working group on future rotorcraft technology and Leonardo put the figure at over 900 helicopters requiring replacement, excluding those operated by the USA, by 2045.
Both Airbus Helicopters and Leonardo Helicopters are working on high-speed rotorcraft – respectively the Racer compound helicopter and AW609 and Next-generation civil tiltrotor – but these are predominantly for the civil sector.
NATO member states could collectively drive the launch of another high-speed military rotorcraft programme, with initial scoping studies under way.
"As long as we make a start fairly soon we can develop a new system within NATO to replace a number of helicopters over the next 20 years, starting in the 2030s," says Pat Collins, from the UK's Defence Equipment and Support procurement body, who has been co-chairing the science and technology element of the NATO study.
However, the challenge will be to persuade countries to agree a way forward, he says. "It really needs buy-in from a number of nations to say this is what we want from that timeframe."