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Farnborough 2018: Leonardo's UK helo future uncertain without government backing

9th July 2018 - 12:00 GMT | by Grant Turnbull in London

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Senior officials at the Anglo-Italian helicopter manufacturer Leonardo have called for a ‘clear strategy’ from the UK government in terms of retaining key rotorcraft design and development skills in the UK.

Geoff Munday, MD of Leonardo Helicopters UK, told reporters on 4 July that while the company was ‘working very hard with full support of Leonardo and the government in terms of new orders for the [AW101 Merlin] and [AW159 Wildcat]’, further commitment to the UK’s industrial helicopter capabilities was needed.

‘We need some clear commitment [from the UK government],’ he explained. ‘We need to maintain the design and development capability of our work force.’

The company is hopeful that there will be further cash injections in areas such as unmanned rotary platform development, especially the SW-4 ‘Solo’ that has been trialled by the Royal Navy. But if a UK rotorcraft strategy is not forthcoming, Leonardo’s future commitment to the UK could hang in the balance.

‘As a company, if there is no new investment strategy, it would be difficult for us to invest in the business in the UK,’ said officials.

Munday’s concerns have also been echoed by former executives in the company as well as British lawmakers. While this year’s Farnborough Airshow has seen much publicity over a new combat air strategy, it is unlikely that a rotorcraft strategy will have as much prominence.

Making Leonardo’s commitment to the UK even more tenuous is Britain’s impending exit from the European Union, with officials telling reporters that the company would prefer a ‘soft Brexit’ approach that would not impose strict controls on the movement of goods and personnel.

‘We would like an approach that would make it easier for us to do business in Europe… the free movement of people and materials particularly in the area of helicopters,’ said Munday.

Leonardo has worked with industry groups such as ADS – which represents over a thousand UK businesses in the aerospace, defence and security sectors – to formulate an industrial response to Britain’s exit from Europe, particularly from an R&D perspective.

With that input, ADS has concluded that participating in large-scale R&D projects ‘is not possible with only national resources, it’s simply too costly’.

In terms of manufacturing output from Leonardo UK’s Yeovil facility, Munday told reporters that the order backlog meant that would carry on ‘well into 2020’. ‘We are busy this year, and we are busy next year,’ he explained.

However, in 2016 the company lost out to US aerospace giant Boeing to build the UK’s next-generation of attack helicopters. Leonardo, then GKN Westland Helicopter, played a crucial role in the British Army’s acquisition of the original Apache and was contracted in the 1990s to assemble the AH-64 in Yeovil with British sub-systems to create the AH1.

Now to maintain manufacturing output beyond 2020 the company is hoping that several export opportunities bear fruit including additional sales of the AW101 and AW159. For the latter platform Leonardo is eyeing the German Navy’s replacement of its legacy Super Lynx fleet as well as a new request for proposal from South Korea for an additional 12 helicopters to supplement its existing AW159 fleet.

Two AW159s are being built for the Philippines with deliveries expected next year, with other campaigns also active in Malaysia (a legacy Super Lynx operator) and Pakistan.

The company is also delivering 16 AW101 all-weather search and rescue helicopters to the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security, with delivery of those units expected to be completed in 2020.

Upgrade work is also being carried out at the Yeovil facility, including the modernisation of Brazilian Super Lynx helicopters. Work is also being carried out on modernising the Royal Navy’s AW101 Commando Merlin to the Mk4/Mk4A standard, with the first aircraft unveiled in May.

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