Six NATO nations team up to launch helicopter program as euro and US industry watch

Six NATO countries are looking to modernize their older helicopter fleets, like this British AW101 Merlin helicopter. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

EUROSATORY 2022: NATO’s Next Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) project was officially launched in Brussels today, with six European NATO states agreeing to allocate funds of €26.7 million (28 $.2 million) to define the needs of their armed forces for a new medium multi-role helicopter to replace those currently in their inventories.

France, Germany, Greece, Italy and the UK previously signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) in November 2020, but upon today’s signing of the MoU, the Netherlands joined the project. Spain and the United States, which had previously expressed interest, according to NATO, ultimately did not join. The UK is the lead country for the project.

The aim is to replace the current generation of medium multi-role helicopters, such as the NH90 and AW101 Merlin, by around 2035, when many of those currently in service will reach the end of their service life. life. Although the agreement does not require countries to purchase a final design together, the six NATO countries operating the same system would have clear interoperability advantages and, at least on paper, should help reduce costs. by buying in quantity.

The signing of the MoU “is a clear example of NATO and Allies working together to harness rapidly evolving technology to benefit our military capabilities. By investing our resources and channeling our development within a multinational framework, we ensure that the Allies will be equipped with the best equipment available,” NATO Assistant Secretary General Mircea Geoană said in the statement.

“In cooperation with industry, participants will start from a clean sheet to explore how to meet their needs with the latest technologies on the market, examining options such as hybrid and electric propulsion, a systematic open system architecture and providing radically improved solutions. flight characteristics,” reads a joint statement from the partners, who met on the sidelines of NATO’s Defense Ministerial meeting this week.

This language, particularly the mention of a “white sheet”, suggests that industry concerns expressed after the NGRC Industry Day held in Luxembourg last September have been heard – in particular the suspicions Europeans that the program was oriented towards the choice of an American system.

To find out more about Eurosatory 2022, click here.

An industry insider who spoke on condition of anonymity told Breaking Defense at the Eurosatory trade show in Paris that at this meeting the companies expected to have discussions on what capabilities the industry could potentially provide, only to end up with what appeared to be a list of requirements. .

“Somewhat to our surprise, instead, we were told what the specs of the new machine should be. Normally you first establish what the machine should be used for and then talk about its features,” the insider said.

The most important of these features was that the helicopter had to be very fast, with a top speed of around 220 knots (253 mph) – which would seem to narrow the field down to a tilt-rotor, hybrid system or some other kind of non-traditional helicopter design. Another requirement for the NGRC was that its range be approximately 1,180 miles, twice that of today’s helicopters. Finally, it had to be cheap.

It should be noted that the US and UK Armies have agreed to pursue a “Future Cooperative Vertical Lift Program Feasibility Assessment” which provides the UK Ministry of Defense with access to documents on US Army requirements that could be used to inform their own decision-making processes. The fact that the requirements of this UK-led NGRC program were so aligned with those of the US Army’s Future Vertical Lift program led European industry to suspect that the NGRC requirements had been written in such a way that the winner of the FVL ends up by default as the winner of the NGRC.

This did not sit well with industry representatives, who, according to the company insider, felt that the US military’s requirement for speed and range, necessary for operations in the Pacific flying between islands, is simply not needed in the European theatre.

Airbus Helicopters, for example, recently calculated that to meet speed requirements, the helicopter would need to be around 30% larger than the current generation used in Europe, with a maximum take-off weight of up to 17 tonnes” and that brings in its wake a host of problems, like the inability to land on a ship,” the industry source said. defense ministries that if they wanted speed it would have a financial and logistical cost and therefore they might only be able to afford a lower number of aircraft.”

The mention of a “clean sheet” in the statement was welcomed by an Airbus Helicopters spokesperson. The company, in collaboration with Italian Leonardo Helicopters, submitted in 2021 a proposal for a 40 million euro ($42.2 million) grant from the European Defense Fund for the Next Generation Rotorcraft Technologies (NGRT) project. .

The spokesperson said the project would allow companies to work on key technologies such as stealth and examine human/unmanned teaming, among others – technology that would appear vital to the NGRC effort.

“There must be a European proposal” to replace the current generation of European-made medium helicopters, the spokesman said.

US companies, of course, will be watching the program closely, even without official US government involvement – ​​and with the understanding that domestic production will be required to some extent.

“We’ve been following this opportunity, and obviously one of the key aspects of this opportunity will be European manufacturing,” Mike Spencer, Boeing’s senior vertical sales manager, business development, told Breaking Defense.

“So there has to be some sort of partnership strategy with one or more of the European manufacturers to move forward in this area. and they’re looking for extra speed. They’re looking for extra seats. So there are design options that we’re going to explore with our partners in Europe.”

Valerie Insinna in St. Louis contributed to this report.

Ryan H. Bowman