France and Germany are close to taking a political decision to procure a heavy rotorcraft capable of lifting up to 13t of equipment and supplies or 70 troops over a range of 1,000km (540nm), says the European Defence Agency (EDA).
The partners' long-anticipated heavy transport helicopter (HTH) proposal should be presented to the agency in "the coming weeks", according to EDA director Alexander Weis. The joint requirement seeks an aircraft with a maximum take-off weight in the 32-35t range.
Paris and Berlin have agreed to open the competition to other European nations under the EDA framework, and to even consider offers from non-partner nations. The European Union says this would make the programme more commercially viable, potentially doubling its expected volume from 60 to 120 aircraft.
Russia's Mil design bureau is offering three aircraft based on its current Mi-26T. These comprise either a "light" or "deep" modernisation of the helicopter, or a new aircraft based on the main elements of the 20t-payload design.
Mil displayed the Mi-26 to French army crews at Istres air base near Marseilles last November. Although the demonstration was deemed a success, general designer Alexei Samusenko acknowledged that the type must undergo a comprehensive avionics overhaul to reduce its crew from the current five to three at the most if an order is to follow.
But the crew issue may not necessarily be a deal-breaker because, at about $10 million, the Mi-26 is between half and one-third the cost of other models under EDA scrutiny. Development costs could also be shared with Russia, which needs to upgrade its Mi-26Ts, and Mil has already proposed establishing an upgrade centre for export examples with South Africa's Advanced Technologies & Engineering.
Other candidates for the HTH requirement include Boeing's CH-47F Chinook, Sikorsky's CH-53K and a new design.