PARIS --- France and Germany are leaning towards an off-the-shelf acquisition to meet their requirement for a heavy transport helicopter, and according to present plans could award a production contract by 2012 for initial deliveries in 2017.
The two countries on June 20 signed an agreement in which they said they would “work in common to harmonise their requirements for operational and tactical airlift and air manoeuvrability, in order to fill the gap beyond the capabilities provided by the NH90” and the future Airbus A400M fixed-wing aircraft. The project is known as Helicoptère de Transport Lourd (HTL) in France and Future Transport Helicopter (FTH) in Germany.
“It is not obvious that we will have to develop a new helicopter: we hope to adapt what is available on the market,” François Mestre, the official in charge of the program at the French defense procurement agency, DGA, told defense-aerospace.com. The looming defense spending crunch in France also argues for off-the-shelf solutions rather than expensive development programs.
Three helicopters are being evaluated in the initial phase: the Boeing CH-47F Chinook, the Sikorsky CH-53K project and the Mil Mi-26T. The latter will be evaluated by the French Army in November, Mestre said, under an agreement signed in December with Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms export agency.
“We anticipate finalizing a common requirement by 2009 followed by a two-year risk reduction phase, with an additional year to complete contract specifications,” he said. A procurement contract could be signed in 2012 with initial deliveries to follow in 2017. “This is a very relaxed schedule because we want to take the time to build a durable program,” Mestre said.
It also would leave ample time to modify the basic Mi-26T design to European requirements. It has a five-man crew, while France wants three at most, and both its avionics and engines are outdated. It also does not have a Western certification. Development costs for a new version of a new Mi-26T with new engine and avionics would be considerable, but could be shared with Russia which will have to upgrade the Mi-26T in any case.
The CH-47F was declared combat-ready by the US Army in August, so it is probably too late to incorporate any modifications needed by France and Germany. The CH-53K currently has no European partner since Eurocopter decided last year that it would not participate, while the Mi-26T offers considerable growth potential and, perhaps most interestingly, a cost-effective solution providing France and Germany with a very capable helicopter whose technology they would acquire.
Germany has taken the lead in the FTH project, but both it and France hope to involve the European Defence Agency (EDA) so as to attract additional participants, such as Poland, Finland, Sweden and smaller EDA members. However, European requirements are very diverse, and it is not clear a single design would be suitable for all, sources say.
The EDA issued a statement on June 21 saying it “warmly welcomes the announcement of a Franco-German joint effort for a common project on a Future Transport Helicopter capability in the 2020 timeframe….The European Defence Agency has always encouraged Member States to converge their thinking about future needs and to collaborate closely on such ventures at an early stage, with widest possible participation,” said outgoing EDA Chief Executive Nick Witney.
However, European industry sources say there is little chance that the program will find many interested partners as the larger European countries have already committed to other projects to meet their requirements. An executive of Italy’s AgustaWestland noted that the Italian Army has decided to buy the CH-47F Chinook, while Britain has just invested £250 million to buy six additional EH-101s and to upgrade six older CH-47s.
“The diversification in tactical mobility missions, as well as lessons learned from recent operations, confirmed the need to provide armed forces with efficient and highly capable transport helicopters for personnel, light armoured vehicles and cargo. Based on its flexibility, this capability will also address personnel evacuation or emergency logistics transport, within a wide range of operational, geographical and meteorological conditions,” according to a joint French-German statement issued June 20.
In terms of operational requirements, France wants the new helicopter to be able to transport two VBL light armored vehicles and, possibly, a VAB 13-tonne vehicle as slung cargo. It wants to be able to fly two tactical missions of up to 600 km each without refueling, Mestre said, which implies a maximum range of 1,000-1,500 km. In-flight refueling is a possibility, but is not essential.