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UK still to settle on new medium helicopter procurement strategy

12th May 2021 - 16:46 GMT | by Tim Martin in London

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RAF Puma helicopters and three other types are to be replaced under the UK's new medium helicopter programme (Photo: UK MoD)

The UK MoD has still to put forward requirements for its new medium helicopter acquisition, which could see offers eventually arrive from the likes of Airbus, Bell, Leonardo and Lockheed Martin.

Despite committing to a new medium helicopter programme to replace 23 Puma HC2 and three other rotary fleets in the mid-2020s, the UK has not yet drawn up a procurement strategy for the effort.

A competition to replace the Puma fleet had long been expected before the Defence Command Paper made it official on 22 March, but a successor aircraft will also be sourced to replace other smaller helicopter fleets, thought to include Army Air Corps Bell 212, RAF Bell 412 types and Airbus AS365 Dauphins used by Special Forces.

All aircraft eventually procured under the new medium helicopter acquisition will be operated by the British Army and RAF through Joint Helicopter Command. 

Like other procurements to be set up after the publication of the Defence and Security Industrial Strategy (DSIS) on 23 March, new medium helicopter plans are to be first shaped by market assessment, ‘the technologies we require, our national security requirements, and the prosperity opportunities, before deciding the correct approach to the acquisition and procurement of a given capability', according to a British Army spokesperson.  

Leonardo's AW149 on display at DSEI 2019. (Photo: Shephard Media)

‘The new medium helicopter programme is at an early stage and we have not made a decision on a procurement strategy,’ the spokesperson added.

 The change put forward by the DSIS replaces a ‘global competition by default’ approach, leaving decision-makers free to judge ‘where global competition at the prime level may be ineffective or incompatible’ with UK national security priorities.

To date, there has been no suggestion from official sources of when new medium helicopter requirements are to be released to industry, but the UK has ruled out consideration of the US Army Future Long Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), as a first unit equipped target date of FY2030 arrives five years too late.

Leading contenders for the new medium-lift acquisition include Leonardo, offering the 8t-class AW149 multirole helicopter, which it has already sold to the Royal Thai Army.

The company has also secured a deal with Egypt to supply the country with 24 units as part of an €870 million ($975 million) package, which also includes the production of eight AW189 super-medium aircraft.

‘The Government’s recently-published integrated review of defence, security, development and foreign policy featured a strong thread that the Government considers the UK’s onshore defence industry of strategic importance to the security of the nation,’ said a Leonardo spokesperson.

‘As the UK’s only helicopter OEM, we are close to our national customer and will be able to deliver to their specific requirements while at the same time maintaining the UK’s advanced engineering skills base.

‘Because we would be delivering the AW149 from Yeovil, we will provide a substantial boost to the UK economy should we be selected and will be able to maintain this social value over the longer term by exporting the helicopter from the UK.

Defence Insight specifications for the AW149 and the UH-60 Black Hawk, as two of the potential contenders to meet a new medium helicopter requirement in the UK.

Airbus could opt to offer a military version of the H175 super-medium, while further afield Bell’s 525 might also be modified to a military standard. 

'Modifications would be entirely dependent on the UK acquisition authority’s NMH needs. Bell remains committed to providing the right solution based on the requirements whenever they are published,' a spokesperson for the manufacturer confirmed.

'Modifications requested by military end-users typically include additional communications equipment/datalinks, aircraft survivability equipment, electro-optical sensors, helmet-mounted display systems, hoist capability, and fast-rope systems among other options.'

Elsewhere, Lockheed Martin could pitch the 'latest generation Black Hawk,' dependent on technical and operational requirements, according to a company spokesperson.

Sikorsky and the US Army are currently negotiating a final multi-year UH-60 Black Hawk contract, but despite the helicopter having an impressive export record, the UK has previously rejected offers from the manufacturer to buy it.

A 2009 report from The Observer newspaper claimed that UK defence ministers ‘spurned’ three different UH-60 deals, instead choosing to refit the Puma fleet — a reference to MoD approval of a £300 million ($423 million) upgrade. 

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