Airbus Helicopters UK has held U.K. demonstrations with its new H175M medium-lift helicopter, a derivative of the commercial H175 and a type that the company sees as an ideal candidate for the U.K.’s emerging New Medium Helicopter (NMH) requirement. This project is aimed at replacing the Royal Air Force’s fleet of Airbus Puma HC2s by 2025, with as many as three other types also set to be replaced under a fleet recapitalization and rationalization plan within the U.K. Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) rotary-wing fleets.
Airbus is eager to go head-to-head with the Leonardo Helicopters AW149 and any other contenders that may emerge for the NMH project, however it is unclear if the U.K. will opt for a competition or a straight purchase. Speaking to Vertical, Arnaud Roux, Airbus Helicopters’ operational marketing manager for the H175M said: “We are waiting to hear more about the formal NMH requirement and Airbus is very keen to compete. It’s important that the U.K. gets the best value for money — it would be a pity if the MoD decided not to go for a competition.”
The U.K. Integrated Review’s Defence Command Paper, issued by the MoD on March 22, 2021, laid out plans for a new medium lift helicopter in the mid-2020s that will enable a consolidation of the disparate fleet of medium-lift helicopters from four platform types to one — with the central element being the replacement of the Puma. In recent times, the U.K. has opted for a sole-source acquisition based on a specific set of requirements and capabilities. However, in response to a parliamentary question in mid-October, the government said its expectation “is that the procurement will be subject to a competition,” but that “nor final decision has been taken.” As of yet, no formal specifications have been issued by the UK MoD.
The H175M is a new military derivative of Airbus’s H175 commercial helicopter, which has been in service since 2015 and is currently operating in a number of roles including search-and-rescue and law enforcement. Airbus says 26 H175s are already in daily North Sea operations off the coast of the U.K.
Airbus says the eight-tonne-class H175M could readily be offered with a typical array of military equipment. “We are going to add some equipment dedicated for the military version,” commented Roux. “We have already developed a lot of equipment for the Hong Kong Government Flying Service [GFS] H175s such as fast-roping, rapelling, ballistic protection, and an electro-optical turret.”
He said that new capabilities being evaluated for the UK requirement include troop seats, an electronic warfare system, and tactical radios. “We plan 14 troop seats for fully-equipped soldiers,” Roux added. “However, we could install 18 seats as per the civilian version of the H175. We want the H175M to be versatile. In fact, we already have 30 configurations certified for the H175 in public service use.”
Airbus acknowledges that the commercial H175 includes significant Chinese manufacturing input, but it is currently building an H175 airframe fully in Europe. The company says this is being produced entirely free of any elements sourced from China as the result of a project that has been under way for the past five years capitalising on European aerostructures capability. Airbus Helicopters says this specific example could be the first H175M to be delivered to the U.K. MoD if selected.
In keeping with the British Government’s prosperity agenda, Airbus Helicopters UK says it would establish a final assembly line for the H175M at the company’s wing production factory at Broughton in Wales, if it was selected for the NMH requirement, and that it aspires to export this helicopter version globally from the U.K. NMH is part of the UK Rotary Wing Strategy, with Leonardo Helicopters (UK) proposing to manufacture AW149s at its Yeovil factory if it was selected.
During Vertical’s media flight in the H175M demonstrator aircraft it was notable how few control inputs were required by the pilot. The platform features an impressive level of automation and the H175 has been designed to dramatically reduce pilot workload. Indeed, Airbus’s common avionics makes transitioning between types very straightforward. This could prove valuable for the H175M as an NMH candidate, with the UK Military Flying Training System (MFTS) already employing the Airbus H135 Juno and H145 Jupiter at RAF Shawbury for pilot and rear crew training.
New pilots would already be rated on the H175M’s common platform avionics, which would save a lot of money and time during progression to the front line. “I am type-rated on the H175, so I can also fly the H145. The two primary cockpit screens are the same,” Roux commented. “For my type rating I only required two hours of flying in the actual aircraft, the rest was in the simulator. All the avionics training is the same, so conversion to the H175M will just be mission training. It’s a big benefit.”
Roux says moving between platforms is so much easier thanks to the common avionics architecture of the Airbus platforms and that software upgrades flow through the various types quickly as they are released as a new capability for a type.
As the prospective contenders line-up for NMH, clearly the next major step will be the release of formal requirements from the MoD. Airbus Helicopters is keen to ensure the H175M gets a fair crack at the prize via a full and open competition, and its recent UK demonstrations could help pave the way to a fly-off to secure one of the most important military helicopter opportunities in the U.K. in many years.