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Five NATO countries want to jointly develop the next generation of medium-sized multipurpose helicopters. France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Great Britain signed a corresponding letter of intent on November 19, 2020. The project is one of the so-called High Visibility Projects (HVP) of NATO. For Germany, the Federal Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer signed the declaration of intent.

A significant number of medium multi-purpose helicopters currently in use by NATO allies will reach the end of their life cycle by 2035. Then the new generation of helicopters should be available. The “Next Generation Rotorcraft” project aims to develop a solution for these upcoming requirements. At the same time, the broadest possible spectrum of new technology as well as new manufacturing processes and operating concepts should be used.

In the coming years, experts from the participating nations will work through a comprehensive work program. First of all, the skill requirements must be determined. This results in the list of requirements. The work results in a multi-stage cooperation plan.

In a virtual ceremony, the five defense ministers of the alliance partners signed the Letter of Intent for the development of the new helicopter capability in their respective capitals.

"By investing our resources together and channeling our development initiatives through a multinational framework, we ensure that Allies are equipped with the best available capabilities, which helps maintain NATO's technological edge," said NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană when signing.

Photo: NATO

It is to be expected that other countries will participate in the project over time, for example Spain. NATO assumes that at least 1,000 helicopters of the member states will have to be replaced in the coming decades. This does not include the needs of the USA. The machines to be replaced range from platforms such as the Aerospatiale SA330 Puma to early NH90 machines from NH Industries and Leonardo Helicopters AW101.

However, countries with Italy and Great Britain that have signed the cooperation agreement that has now been concluded have also expressed interest in the US Army's “Future Vertical Lift” program. With this in mind, Bruno Even, Airbus Helicopters' Chief Executive Officer, stresses that Europe must tackle its own development in order to maintain its “strategic autonomy” at the industrial level. “It is good that our military customers are starting with these considerations. The industry needs a long-term view of these requirements, ”continued Even. However, none of the European manufacturers currently has a military “high-speed helicopter” under development that would be comparable to the US models Bell V-280 VALOR or Sikorsky / Boeing SB-1.

It is to be hoped that this time all the countries involved will be able to agree on common capability requirements and a model, so that there will not be a variety of versions again, as is the case with the NH90, the TIGER attack helicopter or the A400M.

Tiger Mk III about to take off

On the same day, Airbus Helicopters said they expected the Tiger Mk III to be about to take off. The three partners had agreed on a common configuration that should be fixed by the end of the year. The three partners are France, Germany and Spain. Australia, the fourth user state, is phasing out the tiger and is looking for a successor.

Airbus Helicopters is confident that it can launch its Tiger Mk III program by the end of the year after receiving approval from the three customers for the modification. For the past six months, Airbus Helicopters has had “close technical discussions” between France, Germany and Spain, according to Chief Executive Officer Bruno Even.

The contract could then come into force in mid-2021. Airbus Helicopters was commissioned by the European procurement authority OCCAR in September 2018 to carry out de-risking studies for the improvement, which extend to the avionics, the mission and weapon systems of the tiger.

In the Mk III, the existing cells would be retained; no new helicopters will be built for Germany. These would basically be completely refurbished and provided with new sensor and weapon integration. New avionics are also imperative. This would have to go hand in hand with an extension of the service life of the cells from 20 years now to 30 years. The last Tiger delivered dates from 2018. This means that the end of use is in 2048. However, older machines would be phased out as early as the beginning of the 2040s and therefore not enough machines would be available for operational use from around the mid-2040s.

When converting to Mk III, one or two machines would run in the first year, then three to four per year. Around 20 machines are necessary to be operationally ready. If one calculates ideally with an influx from 2029, a readiness for action from 2034 and an end from the mid-2040s, the question of an effort and benefit comparison is allowed.

André Forkert