Leonardo to pitch AW149 for RAF Puma replacement

AvatarBy Jamie Hunter | March 26, 2021

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 57 seconds.

Leonardo is gearing up to offer its AW149 multi-role medium helicopter for the emerging British military New Medium Helicopter (NMH) requirement, following news that the U.K. Ministry of Defence is to launch a competition to replace the Royal Air Force’s aging fleet of 22 Puma HC2s, which first entered service in January 1972.

In the recent Integrated Review’s Defence Command Paper, issued on March 22, 2021, the Ministry of Defence laid out plans for “investment in a new medium lift helicopter in the mid-2020s [that] will enable a consolidation of the Army’s disparate fleet of medium lift helicopters from four platform types to one; including the replacement of Puma.”

A Leonardo Helicopters AW149 with added military equipment. Leonardo Photo
A Leonardo Helicopters AW149 with added military equipment. Leonardo Photo

The four in-service rotorcraft targeted for retirement are the Puma HC2, Bell 212s that are operated in Brunei, Bell 412s that fly from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, and Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) AS365 Dauphins flown by British Special Forces. While the report labels all of these as being operated by the U.K. Army, the Pumas and the AB412s are actually flown by the RAF but funded under Army budget lines.

Leonardo Helicopters proposes to manufacture AW149s in the U.K. at its Yeovil Plant to satisfy the NMH requirement. 

“A British-made AW149 multi-role utility helicopter is Leonardo’s proposal to replace the U.K.’s aging Puma fleet. It is the latest-generation medium battlefield platform, configurable for a wide range of demanding missions in the most severe operational environments,” Leonardo Helicopters said in a statement. 

Leonardo is touting an active AW149 supply chain capable of delivering ‘military off-the-shelf’ aircraft in less than 24 months, prior to 2025 when the Puma is scheduled to retire.

“We will be looking to put the 149 front and center into the potential for replacing the Puma,” Nick Whitney, managing director of Leonardo Helicopters’ U.K. division told Vertical during a media briefing. Leonardo is “encouraged” by announcements that confirmed plans to replace the Puma and a recapitalization of the medium helicopter fleet, Whitney said. 

The AW149 features a state-of-the-art digital glass cockpit. Leonardo Photo
The AW149 features a state-of-the-art digital glass cockpit. Leonardo Photo

Whitney said domestic production of the new aircraft could be a “a key decision point” in choosing a new medium helicopter. With 7,500 employees in the U.K., 3,000 of those at its Yeovil site, Leonardo is well positioned to design, develop, and build helicopters in the U.K., Whitney said.

The 19,000-pound (8,600-kilogram) AW149 was formally launched in 2006 and was offered to Turkey to meet its Utility Helicopter Program as a fully weaponized multi-mission platform. The first prototype AW149 flew at Vergiate, Italy, on November 13, 2009, received military certification in 2014 and entered service with the Royal Thai Army in 2016. 

The AW149 has now been ordered by the Egyptian Navy and the type has been designed for a range of missions including troop transport, re-supply/external load lift, medical and casualty evacuation, combat search and rescue (CSAR), special forces operations, close air support, armed escort, command and control and reconnaissance.

For the U.K. NMH requirement, the AW149 faces competition from the Airbus Helicopters H175M and possibly the H225M, as well as from the Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk and NH Industries NH90.

Whitney says Leonardo is looking to establish a final assembly facility for the AW149 in Yeovil to meet the U.K. requirement, which would create jobs and activate a UK supply chain and “opens up the way for significant export opportunities.”

To replace its four legacy rotorcraft Leonardo estimates the U.K. will need from 35 to 40 helicopters, although swapping them out one-for-one may not be realistic. 

“The export activity on the back of that is the bit that’s really exciting, because once we see the U.K. MoD taking that asset forward, they become a reference customer for the product, and that’s vitally important in the export market,” Whitney said, adding that previous successes with AW159 Wildcat, Lynx, and EH101 Merlin, suggests that an aircraft entering U.K. military service acts as a catalyst for export demand. “They are seen as a tier-one level operator and these countries want to replicate that.”

Leonardo would expand upon its existing Italian AW149 production effort with a new line to build the helicopters for the U.K., in preparation for manufacturing at the Yeovil site. 

“If they need aircraft early, we can do that,” Whitney said. “We could build aircraft [in Italy] and then finish them in the U.K., because this is an existing product and the intention will be long-term that we build the aircraft fully in the U.K., but we can meet very quick delivery timescales should that be necessary.”

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