Leonardo investing heavily in AW149 for UK New Medium Helicopter program

Leonardo investing heavily in AW149 for UK New Medium Helicopter program

1-Jul-2021 Source: HeliHub.com

Leonardo is investing a significant amount of time and resources into ensuring the AW149 is as well-prepared as it can be for the UK New Medium Helicopter (NMH) requirement. In March, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced the programme by press release, well ahead of any more detailed documentation being made available. It is particularly notable that the OEMs have been given as much detail to date as anyone worldwide, and to some extent we are all in the dark as to what the plans are. A key detail is that the NMH programme is not for a single force, but run by Joint Helicopter Command and thus any acquisition could be flown for Army, Air Force or Navy operations.

The Puma – first delivered to UK military on 29th January 1971 – is nearing the end of its operational life, and its replacement is central to the programme. The MoD also stated in their release that NMH will replace a total of four helicopter types, including Puma, but without stating what the other three are. Careful research of the MoD website by HeliHub.com found a statement that the Bell 212 is one, and an educated guess would put the Bell 412 (Griffin) and AS365N3 Dauphin in the frame too. The MoD is also suggesting an aggressive target of first deliveries “mid-decade”, suggesting 2025-6 rather than 2027 onwards.

Merging four helicopter fleets into one is targeted at cost saving through commonality of skills, parts, etc. While the assumed four helicopter types are quite different in size (the Puma has 72% higher gross weight to the Dauphin), the programme will be looking at future requirements, not existing ones. Approximately two thirds of the ~40 airframes being replace are Pumas. The remainder consist of three Bell 412s (known as Griffins in UK military), five Bell 212s and six Airbus 365N3 Dauphins. Roles range from troop and logistical transport to hoisting, SAR and special ops, and recent year experience has been seen across a huge range of climates.

In March, Leonardo brought the AW149 helicopter by road from UK to Italy. This particular airframe is one of just two in the AW149/189 production to have the Safran Aneto 1K engines fitted, and is being marketed to civilian operators as the AW189K. The two airframes consist of one of the early prototypes, and the one pictured here currently assigned to the NMH program – ostensibly the “first production airframe”.

While every other 149/189 to date has had the GE CT7 engines, the potential range of tasks – from the jungles of Brunei and the Puma’s experience in Middle East operations to the Arctic cold – suggests that the extra power of the Aneto engine will give a performance advantage, even if that was not evident on a sunny British June day. The Aneto is based on the RTM322 engine, a joint development by Britain’s Rolls-Royce and France’s Turbomeca (now Safran).

The approach taken by Leonardo was to topic of an extensive briefing and demo flight given to HeliHub.com yesterday at the Yeovil plant, which was much appreciated. The current estimate is that this development aircraft will be in the UK until the end of the year, and it is aimed squarely at the British requirement with the national flag displayed on the forward engine covers. The manufacturer has done plenty of analysis of what they believe the roles will be for NMH and are flying and documenting all those in preparation for the official documents when they are released.

British content will be important in each NMH proposal, and Leonardo will have an easy lead on that aspect, with a current estimate of 60-70% by value of each airframe coming from UK sources, and they are working on increasing that. Aside from the product value, there is a political card to play that the AW149 is likely to be the only potential option which could be built in the UK, supporting UK jobs both during production and support thereafter. Ten of the current UK SAR AW189 fleet of 11 were built at Yeovil, so it is definitely within scope to resurrect that production line for a British military order of potentially 40+ units.

Leonardo is ensuring that they are very well placed for the competition they could be up against. With the Puma being central to the requirement, Airbus know more about the current operations of that type than Leonardo, and the French part of Airbus Helicopters has three potential platforms which could form their NMH offering. The H215M would be the nearest direct lineage replacement for the current Puma platform, but would be both heavier and 150cm longer (rotors turning length) than the AW149. A military version of the H175 would sit close to the average of the gross weights of the four platforms being replaced, but North Sea experience suggests that this type has operational challenges around CofG that would make it less suitable to the flexibility the military demand. We see the H160M as the most likely bid offering from Airbus, and while it does not have the size of the current Puma, the development work currently going on with the French military could easily be translated across to the British requirement.

Bell is promoting the 525 for a German military bid, and their work on that program could be re-used for a British offering. However, HeliHub.com believes that it is too early in the product lifecycle of this model to be a viable consideration for UK MoD. Aside from the prototypes, no 525s have been built, partly due to still being a good distance from FAA certification. Bell would also find it very difficult to meet the “mid-decade” delivery dates and would be low on British content, although the moves they are currently making in Germany suggest they are very open to partnerships to set up a local production line.

Sikorsky could put forward the S70i from their factory in Poland, and may have an advantageous price point. With the massive experience of the Black Hawk platform over many years, the Connecticut-based manufacturer could easily demonstrate any and every role requirement which the UK MoD asks for, but would find the political manoeuvrings a little more difficult with the production line in the EU and not the UK. Although the “Brexit” vote which led the UK to leave the UK was very close, the country has accepted the democratic result well and is moving ahead well on its own path divergent from the EU.

We asked Leonardo why they have focused in the AW149 (gross weight 8300-8600 kg) and not the AW139 (7000kg), which would appear to be a closer size to the current platforms. Primarily they believe that the 149 fits their expectation of the requirements best, there are aspects of the AW139 which are on the “future developments” list but are already fitted to the AW149 and AW169. This suggests that the technical ability of the AW149 is – in their mind – proven from the start, and thus they would not feel as confident with a bid based on the AW139. They would also face a greater challenge to set up an AW139 production line in the UK.

Overall, the AW149 appears to be a worthy aircraft to put forward, even if the requirement definition is still pure guess work.

Jeremy Parkin – HeliHub.com

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