Buy existing armaments on the spot or invest in development programs that require patience, but may result in increased technological and industrial capabilities?
This is a dilemma for many countries involved in arms purchases. Currently, Poland is facing exactly this dilemma in the context of the Kruk attack helicopter program.
The need to replace combat helicopters has existed in Poland for a long time and is to be met by the ongoing Kruk program. The deadline for choosing a new attack helicopter platform, however, has been postponed and remains uncertain due to the armed forces’ many needs in terms of weapons modernization. It currently appears that a purchase could take place, at the earliest, sometime before 2025.
This means the current helicopters will be 27 years old by the time they are replaced and, worse, the Mi-24D and Mi-24W helicopters have been without direct anti-tank weapons since 2012.
This is very bad news, but there is a silver cloud: Waiting for several years, during which W-3 Sokół and Mi-24 armed helicopters will probably be modernized and fitted with modern weapons, could allow a more developmental solution, potentially more beneficial to Poland than buying a helicopter off the proverbial shelf.
On July 10, 2018, Leonardo and Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) specifying the principles of cooperation in the design, production, final assembly, sale and after-sales support of the AW249 helicopter. It was the result of Leonardo's talks with PGZ, as well as other representatives of the Polish defense industry, about the potential participation of Poland in the AW249 program. Leonardo emphasizes that this LOI confirms their will to share tasks not only at the production stage, but even earlier.
AW249 is the only project offered to Poland that can be called a truly forward-looking solution. Reports about Italy’s desire to develop such a helicopter have appeared since mid-decade, and at the time the project carried the designation AH-XX. Its conclusion appeared in early 2017, when the Italian land forces officially initiated the whole process.
The helicopter is to be developed in cooperation by the Italian army and the national leader Leonardo Helicopters. The program is designated NEES (Nuovo Elicottero da Esplorazione e Scorta, or new reconnaissance and escort helicopter). The AW249 will be based on existing solutions and operational experience, including a lightweight helicopter combat helicopter AW129 Mangusta but will be much heavier, with a maximum take-off weight of around 7-8 tons.
The weapons fit is to constitute up to 16 guided anti-tank missiles (Spike-ER is currently planned, but also advanced Spike NLOS with a range of up to 25 km), 70 mm rockets, as well as very short- and short-range air-to-air missiles. This implies the ability to carry a similar amount of weapons as in the heaviest combat helicopters in the world.
The AW249 stub wings will carry four weapons pylons, and additional rails for air-to-air missiles. The armament is to be completed with a 20 mm three-tube rotary gun, successfully used today in the Mangusta.
The plan is to use modern composite materials and high-class avionics solutions that the Leonardo Group already uses. The AW249 is also expected to have a good cruising speed (over 260 km/h) and a flight endurance of over three hours, which will allow, for example, escorting heavy transport helicopters during an entire mission.
Building on ready-made solutions will reduce risk and, of course, significantly reduce costs. Speaking of them, the Italian Ministry of Defense has committed to invest the substantial sum of EUR 487 million in the research and development phase.
It is planned that the first prototype should be produced by 2020, while the entire flight test program is tentatively scheduled to end five years later, when the first four (three pre-production and first production) helicopters will achieve initial operational readiness.
And this is where the window of opportunity opens for Poland.
It is no coincidence that the first AW249 visualizations appeared in public circulation after the conference in Krakow organized by the Italian Armed Forces in October 2017. Poland is an attractive partner for the Italians -– it is just about to invest in combat helicopters, and in addition there is the PZL Świdnik plant, owned by Leonardo, as well as scientific and industrial facilities.
The Armed Forces of the Republic of Poland have very high requirements for the future Kruk (Raven), but as AW249 is a new project, Poland could influence its design, and even develop a special version adapted to Poland’s geographical conditions.
The Letter of Intent of July 10, 2018, however, is only the first step on the way to establishing close cooperation. Meanwhile, work in Leonardo continues. The company has a contract with the Italian government and implements the subsequent stages of the project. The helicopter is still on the drawing boards, but it seems that the later Polish industry will join such a project, the less it will be able to share in defining the product and its foundations.
“And that would be a pity because for one of the great advantages of this program we consider the possibility of sharing technology, as well as improving the qualifications of entities involved in the project. The Leonardo Group as a European company has no legal restrictions in this area and can be very open. And of course, there is the interest of the army.
“It could not only use the most modern combat helicopter, but also be sure that there are no black boxes in it, elements to which the Polish side would not have access. Full source codes with the possibility of modernization and development of this helicopter would be in the country,” said Leonardo representatives.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The text above was authored by PZL Swidnik, a Polish subsidiary of the Italian Leonardo group, and published in the Polish daily “Rzeczpospolitej.”)