Budget versus Necessity – How New, How Soon?

US Marine Corps
A US Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 in formation conducts a bilateral formation flight with a Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force V-22 Osprey with the 107th Aviation Unit during March, 2022. (USMC)

Airbus, Bell, Leonardo and Sikorsky participated in an AMR survey to gauge their perspectives of business opportunities within the Asia-Pacific military rotorcraft market over the next few years.

Military rotorcraft sales face several challenges in the Asian Pacific market. Predominantly there is a lack on requirement among potential customers to place large orders that could bring economies of scale in the purchase price and in savings gained during through life operations, the type of which are typically found among larger European and North American military forces.

There is also the increasingly relevant question of the level of technology that such regional customers required in terms of the complexity of the avionics and the mission systems. The tyranny of distance can also be a factor in the selection process. Whether military rotorcraft operate from the land or in the maritime environment, it is range that is becoming an increasingly determining factor, particularly in view of any potential conflict with the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Despite initial objections from elements of the Japanese public, It was of little real surprise that the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) committed to an order for 17 Bell/Boeing MV-22B Ospreys that could be used to rapidly re-enforce such contested territory as the Nansei and Senkaku Islands. Combined with the Lockheed Martin F-35s that Japan is also bringing into service, not only do both purchases add up-to-date aircraft into Japan’s self-defense forces, they can also interoperate with the various arms of the United States military, and also with Australia in the case of the F-35s should the need arise.

Japan’s purchase of tiltrotor aircraft will also position it to adopt similar technology in a couple of decades should Bell win the US Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) programme with its V-280 Valor. Two of the lessons learned by the US Army through its use of rotorcraft in the asymmetric wars conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan was the operational duress on aircraft that needed to operate in hot and high conditions – with hot being particularly relevant now in Asia considering the wide zone between the tropics. The campaigns also underlined the need to reduce dispersed forward area refuelling points (FARPS), which served to tie down force elements to holding specific small locations to allow for deeper operations beyond main supply bases.

Looking at what is available today, a spokesperson at Bell said that helicopter sales are dividing equally between two sectors. New helicopters with their modern (increasingly digital) designs and use of new fabricating techniques together with lifecycle management programmes that can add new mission potential. Secondly, new replacements for legacy, usually analogue based aircraft that are now inefficient. Digital avionics and the increasing adoption of open systems architecture is allowing more mission sets including a wider range of weapons and sensors, that will add additional capability to the customer nation’s armed forces.

Priority Markets

In terms of which market sectors have the greatest potential for business, manufacturers agree in some sectors but disagree in others, depending on those areas that best match their product offering. Most agree that there is a growing market in the homeland security/law enforcement sector by either paramilitary or police forces.

A Sikorsky spokesperson said that: “For many SE Asian countries, demand is driven by the need to replace ageing helicopter fleets (mostly Huey derivatives) with a helicopter built to military standards. Operators also want a helicopter that provides better performance, is safer, more advanced, and yet affordable to operate.” Naturally the company has its Black- and Sea- Hawk variants in mind here, and is selling on the type’s ‘built specifically for military use’ reputation, as well as the upgrades that are now available that can give customers a proven digital platform to replace their analogue legacy aircraft.

Sikorsky, owned by Lockheed Martin, continues to focus on selling its Hawk family of helicopters to new and existing operators in Asia-Pacific. Since 2019, the Philippine Air Force ordered 16 S-70i Black Hawks, which were all delivered by the end of 2021. This was followed by an additional requirement from the Philippine Department of National Defense in February 2022 for an 32 additional S-70i Black Hawks.

One of five S-70i Black Hawks delivered to the Philippine Air Force from Poland in June 2021 - more are required. (Philippine Air Force)
One of five S-70i Black Hawks delivered to the Philippine Air Force from Poland in June 2021 – more are required. (Philippine Air Force)

Although already operating a fleet of Airbus MRH90 Taipans, following a request from the Australian Government, on 8 October 2021 the US Defense Security and Cooperation Agency (DSCA) approved the sale of 12 MH-60R Multi-Mission Helicopters. The Australian Government followed up with a further request on 10 December 2021 in regard to a further 40 UH-60s which would replace the MRH90 fleet. Sikorsky already has recent notable orders in its pocket, notably the decision by the Republic of Korea Navy to buy 12 MH-60R Seahawks primarily for anti-submarine/anti-surface warfare, as well as the Royal Thai Army’s ongoing expansion of its UH-60 fleet with the additional of a further three in 2021.

Military operators also have a choice between rotorcraft that are specifically made for the military market and that can be adapted for either land or maritime roles, such as the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk, NH Industries NH-90, and Leonardo AW159, and those that manufacturers say are applicable to both military and civil use, such as Leonardo’s AW139M, AW149 and AW169M, and in the same style Airbus’ H160M and H175M among others. In fact, for the United Kingdom’s New Medium Helicopter (NMH) requirement both the AW149 and the H175M and being offered to the UK government, in addition to Sikorksy’s S-70i, Bell’s 525 Relentless, and Black Hawk ML-70s from an independent UK company called AceHawk Aerospace.

Should the H175M be selected for the United Kingdom’s current New Medium Helicopter (NMH) requirement of 44 helicopters to replace its fleet of Puma HC2s, Bell 212s and 412s, and Airbus Dauphins, many countries in the region such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand with these type of legacy aircraft may consider following the UK’s lead.

In terms of modernising aircraft during their service life, Leonardo argues that by adopting dual-use platforms with latest civil certification standards, there is versatility and flexibility built in. “In the specialised platforms domain, it is clear operators look for greater capabilities in terms of equipment and weapon systems to counter emerging submarine and surface threats at sea,” said a spokesperson.

Bell’s 505 is one of a new breed of rotorcraft trainers that are gaining new markets. These belong to the Montenego Air Force. The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) will receive up to 40 505s by 2025. (Bell)
Bell’s 505 is one of a new breed of rotorcraft trainers that are gaining new markets. These belong to the Montenego Air Force. The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) will receive up to 40 505s by 2025. (Bell)

Other Airbus rotorcraft that countries may consider for a purely military role might include the light-twin H145M for tactical utility and training, as well was the H135 which Rochereau adds is “already used by the Australian Defence Force on its Helicopter Aircrew Training System (HATS) contract.”

Fabrice Rochereau, Airbus Helicopters head of sales, Asia-Pacific says that the company’s heavyweight military rotorcraft, the proven H225M, has been positively adopted by countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand and he anticipates that a trend towards this type of rotorcraft will continue. Its capacity to act as a multi-mission platform where it can be deployed in support of the civil population during emergencies make it the stand-out of the Super Puma/Cougar family. “We continue to see strong interest from countries looking to modernise their fleets in the near future,” said Rochereau.

Airbus has been investing in facilities in Asia since its days as Eurocopter. This is exemplified by its regional helicopter hub operating out of Subang, Malaysia which provides MRO services for various helicopter types including the H225M (at which it has also located the region’s only training simulators for the H225 and H225M helicopters). It is also open to ‘organic growth or through industrial cooperation with local partners’ as it has done with PT Dirgantara in Indonesia.

A Royal Thai Air Force H225M in flight; Airbus has built a strong and stable following for 11 ton twin turbine medium lift helicopter. (Airbus)
A Royal Thai Air Force H225M in flight; Airbus has built a strong and stable following for 11 ton twin turbine medium lift helicopter. (Airbus)

Naturally, hot on the heels of any improvement in a nation’s front line military helicopter capability comes the need to improve training helicopters to prepare ab initio pilots for the greater challenge of piloting digital rotorcraft. This has meant a significant increase in the market for modern training helicopters and simulators.

In May, Bell announced that the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) and Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) would be training their new rotorcraft pilots on Bell’s 505 following the delivery of up to 40 of the light rotorcraft by 2025. Regional operators of the 505 include the Indonesian Navy and the Japan Coast Guard.

Bell’s 505 is one of a new breed of rotorcraft trainers that are gaining new markets. These belong to the Montenego Air Force. The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) will receive up to 40 505s by 2025. (Bell)
Bell’s 505 is one of a new breed of rotorcraft trainers that are gaining new markets. These belong to the Montenego Air Force. The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) will receive up to 40 505s by 2025. (Bell)

Bell points out that the value of rotorcraft got a boost during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic when vaccines were slow to arrive in the region and patients with serious illness needed to be airlifted to hospitals or medical centres. It is following this experience, states Bell, that “various government entities [are now] wanting to build their own aviation departments so that they can better respond to their own unique mission requirements.”

In Asia Pacific, many countries are affected by natural disasters every year, including flooding and earthquakes, and military helicopters are used extensively to bring the necessary aid and medicines to the areas most effected quickly and efficiently.

Buy Now or Wait

Sikorsky, with FLRAA and FARA working through the developmental milestones, does not believe Asian-Pacific countries will delay their military helicopter acquisitions. Firstly, it is unlikely that the supply for such next generation rotorcraft, at least from the US, would be expected or even slotted into production schedules until the early 2040s at best. And for some time to come the Black Hawk will continue to offer customers the necessary capabilities and will continue to be supported and updated by Sikorsky. “The US Army will continue to operate Black Hawk aircraft for the next four to five decades as it transitions to next generation aircraft beginning in the 2030s,” confirmed the company, adding: “It’s exciting to see continued investment by the US Army for its current fleet of 2,135 H-60 Black Hawk aircraft.” It is on this basis that the Black Hawk’s global supply chain will be active for the next few decades.

Indeed, in June the company announced another five-year multi contract with the US Army for procurement of 120 UH-60M Black Hawk’s and related support for fiscal years 2022-2026 (this included options for another 135 UH-60Ms. US Army Black Hawks and Boeing AH-64 Apaches are also soon to benefit from a new power unit delivered by GE through the Improved Turbine Engine Programme (ITEP). At the Farnborough Expo in July, GE revealed that the T901turboshaft engine had just completed its First Engine to Test (FETT) campaign the previous month.

With so much discussion around crewed, uncrewed and optionally crewed aviation platforms, Sikorsky continues to invest in its MATRIX autonomy system which could eventually be adopted by military customers to reduce crew workloads.

Leonardo sees the arrival of next generation rotorcraft and associated technology as some way off. “Disruptive military programmes and architecture aren’t just around the corner and countries need to modernise their fleets and introduce more capable assets in the short-to-medium term first. We don’t see this [Next Gen] being a priority at this stage in this region therefore,” said a company representative.

Airbus looks at acquisition from a budget perspective. Rochereau explains how the desire for next generation rotorcraft could be mitigated in the short and medium terms through an analysis of budgetary and operational needs. “Depending on how urgent their needs may be and the given budget, operators could possibly assess if a short term or interim acquisition of the available platforms could meet their mid-term requirements while they plan for a longer term acquisition programme that allows for the exploration of next generation options that could meet their timeframe and budget.”

by Andrew Drwiega