French Air Force EC 725 Caracals have been deployed to Afghanistan. (Eurocopter)

The dictionary meaning of utility is “a useful thing”, and the utility helicopter is one of the most useful assets for armed forces around the world. With a global fleet of more than 20,000 military helicopters, seventy-five per cent of them are designated as utility aircraft. The term was first given to the ubiquitous Bell UH-1 ‘Huey’ that came to prominence during the Vietnam war, and hundreds of which remain in service to this day.

Today’s financial uncertainty and reduced defence spending is encouraging end-users to remanufacture and upgrade existing platforms, rather than acquire new helicopters. This trend will be particularly evident across Europe and North America, traditionally the largest helicopter markets but according to a new report issued by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), by 2030 Asia’s spending power will be outstrip that of the US and Europe combined.

New platforms procurement programmes will be driven primarily by the demand for multi-capable helicopters, with reduced logistic footprints and more sustainable designs. The need for utility helicopters will intensify, as these platforms become increasingly versatile. Despite ongoing fleet renewals, however, limited defence budgets will have a profound impact on the helicopter market across all end-user segments.

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have to focus on developing new platforms with cutting-edge improvements that support greater efficiency, but with lower life-cycle costs and military aviation are already seeing the effect of these developments.

Although military platforms continue to dominate the global helicopter market, this dominance is expected to reduce as platforms become more capable and ministries of defence look for commonality with existing fleets to save on through life maintenance costs and improve platform availability.

Troop and equipment transport remains the primary role of the utility helicopter, in response to increased versatility, secondary roles are being adopted that include, combat search and rescue (CSAR), Special Forces support and reconnaissance. All of these roles have been taken on, in one form or the other, by the iconic military utility helicopter, the Huey. More than 1,000 Huey variants, ranging from the Bell UH-1B to the 412, carry up to 12 fully armed troops or 2.500 kg (5,500 lb) payload, are operated in worldwide, particularly in the Latin American and Asia Pacific regions. These include the Fuji-built UH-1J and the Indonesian Nurtanio-Bell NB412 while South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand operate large fleets of ageing UH-1Ds which require replacing. In Europe, large fleets of Huey variants are still operated by Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey.

However, the Huey and its intended replacements, which include the PZL-Swidnik W-3 Sokol, AgustaWestland AW149 and Eurocopter EC 645, are in the light to medium-class of utility helicopters. Further up the scale are two new types currently entering global service are the Eurocopter EC 725 and NH90 TTH. Building on a solid foothold attained by its AS 332/532 Super Puma, over 500 of which are operated around the world, Eurocopter is beginning to make headway with its EC 225/725 medium multipurpose helicopters.

Following the successful operations by French Air Force and ALAT EC 725 Caracals in Afghanistan, primarily fulfilling the CSAR role, but also undertaking troop transport and reconnaissance missions, the type is establishing itself in the military market. Capable of carrying 28 fully armed troops or a 7,500 kg (10,475 lb) underslung load, the EC 725 is equipped with a FLIR turret, air-to-air refueling probe, and has been evaluated in the fire-fighting role.

The first EC 725 helicopter for the Royal Malaysian Air Force was formally handed over at the end of last year and the second unit is scheduled for delivery three months ahead of schedule. Malaysia is to receive a total of 12 EC725s through 2014, creating a highly capable fleet of rotorcraft for CSAR and combat transport missions to replace its long-serving Sikorsky S-61 Sea Kings. The type is also being produced by Helibras in Brazil which is building a total of 50 EC 725s for the country’s three armed services.

The NH90 Tactical Transport Helicopter first entered service with the Finnish Air Force. (David Oliver)

Eurocopter is also part of the NATO Helicopter Industries (NHI) consortium that produces the NH90 multipurpose helicopter now entering service with its Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) variant. Plagued by a protracted development and production delays, the NH90 did not make its operational debut until the end of 2012 when five Italian Army Aviation TTHs were deployed to Herat in Afghanistan. Four German NH90s, two of which equipped with Forward Air Medical Evacuation kits, while the other two will carry out the escort role for CASEVAC missions, followed them in early 2013

With a capacity of carrying 20 fully armed troops or the carriage of a 4,000 kg (8.820 lb) underslung load, the powerful fly-by-wire NH90 has been adopted by eleven European air arms, although Germany, Portugal and Spain have had to reduce the numbers on order due to defence budget reductions.

At what at first sight might be at odds at these requirements is the fact that one of the most numerous transport helicopters in the world is the ubiquitous Mil Mi-8/17 Hip. With the latest variant, the rugged Mi-17V-5 powered by two powerful TV3-117VM turboshaft engines, it is able to carry 36 fully armed troops or up to 4,000 kg (8.800 lb) of cargo including military vehicles loaded via its rear ramp. The Mi-17V-5 has an extremely good hot and high performance and the type continues in production for the Russian Air Force and to attract new customers, however, not in Europe.

One of the world’s most prolific utility helicopters in the Mil Mi-17. (David Oliver)

Although it is still operated by nearly all the former WarPac countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are seeking to replace early variants of the Mi-8. The Hungarian government announced in July this year that it will spend $436 million to replace its Mi-8 helicopter fleet by 2016, while Poland has launched a $3.1 billion contest to acquire 48 tactical transports for the land forces, 10 search and rescue (SAR) helicopters for the air force, and six anti-submarine warfare and six maritime SAR aircraft for the navy.

Contenders for both of these contracts are expected to include Eurocopter with the EC 725, PZL Swidnik with the AgustaWestland AW149, and Sikorsky, which is offering the S-70i Black Hawk. The winning helicopter will be assembled in Poland.

The AgustaWestland AW149 is a contender for a Polish utility helicopter contest. (AgustaWestland)

Based on the successful commercial AgustaWestland AW139, which is also in service with the Irish and Italian air forces, the twin-turbine AW149 can accommodate up to 16 fully equipped troops and armed with unguided 270mm rockets and pintle-mounted 7.62 mm machine guns. It competed for the Turkish Utility Helicopter Programme (TUHP) but lost to the Sikorsky T-70 Black Hawk.

The Black Hawk has replaced the Huey in the United States Army which has a fleet of more than 1,500 which it plans to increase to 2,100 by 2026. More than 2,500 have been produced to date although it has been unable to penetrate the European market in large number. Capable of carrying up to 14 fully armed troops, 1,200 kg (2,640 lb) internal cargo or a 3,600 kg (8,000 lb underslung load), fifteen UH-60Ms are is service with the Swedish Air Force, some of which are operated in Afghanistan, nine S-70As in Austria and 11 naval S-70Bs in Greece.

The largest operator is the Turkish Army and Air Force which has taken delivery of 90 S-70A Black Hawks, and it selected the T-70 for its $3.5 billion Turkish Utility Helicopter Programme (TUHP) in 2011. Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) will assemble a total of 109 T-70 Black Hawks based on the S-70i.

The Turkish government has also signed a contract with TAI for development of the country’s first national next-generation light utility helicopter. Selected as the indigenous helicopter programme prime contractor in June 2010, TAI had submitted its proposal comprising of a 5-tonne twin-engine light helicopter in October 2012. Primarily designed to replace the Turkish Armed Forces fleets of Agusta-Bell 205A and 212s, and Bell UH-1H fleets, the helicopter is also expected to address the services’s helicopter training requirements. The company will apply its experience from the Sikorsky-led T-70 Black Hawk TUHP helicopter development programme to the project.

Swedish Air Force UH-60M Black Hawks are operating in Afghanistan. (David Oliver)

However, the US Army has defined the next generation Huey, and the ageing OH-58 Kiowa Warrior, with its Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) programme to meet a range of missions including aerial escort, command and control, security operations, target acquisition and fire support co-ordination. Sikorsky is proposing an entirely new platform, the S-97 Raider based on its high-speed X2 technology demonstrator.

AgustaWestland is offering its AW169 AAS based on a commercial airframe already in production and undergoing certification trials. Powered by two PW210A engines it features high performance, advanced safety features and cost/effectiveness. Combined with open systems architecture, integrated controls and displays, flight management systems, mission equipment and weapons, AgustaWestland claims that it meets all the current AAUHS requirements.

The AAS-72X prototype developed from the US Army’s EADS UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopter. (EADS)

An outside contender for AAS could be AgustaWestland’s AW159 Wildcat that is in production for the British Army to fulfill its Battlefield Light Utility Helicopter requirement. The twin-turbine helicopter can accommodate up to seven fully equipped troops and be armed with unguided rockets and machine guns.

Eurocopter has proposed a development of its successful UH-72A Lakota light utility helicopter, more than 250 of which have been delivered to the US Army. Three company-funded twin-turbine AAS-72X prototypes have been flown but the programme is likely to be delayed following the US budget sequestration.

In the meantime the German Federal Ministry of Defence has awarded Eurocopter a EUR194 million contract to supply 15 EC 645T2 light utility helicopters based on the UH-72A to German Special Forces Command (KSK) equipped with related packages to support KSK operations which include tactical radios, fast rope systems, cargo hook, pintle-mounted machine guns and electro-optical sensors.

Eurocopter has already developed military variants of its smaller EC 135, the EC 635 that has been sold to Spain and Switzerland, and an armed version to Iraq equipped with the ATE/Eurocopter stand-alone weapon system (SAWS).

At the lower end of the market are the 2-tonne Boeing AH-6 and MD 504F which are both pitching the US Army’s AAS competition and the 2.5 tonne AgustaWestland 109LUH and Eurocopters AS 550C3 Fennec. The latter has been a leading contender for the Indian Army’s protracted contract for 197 Reconnaissance Surveillance Helicopters (RSH), but there is still no decision in sight for this multi-billion dollar deal. Also competing for the Indian RSH programme is a military variant of Russia’s light twin-turbine Kamov Ka-226 that has only been produced in small numbers for civil customers and the Russian armed forces.

With such a diverse range of aircraft in the marketplace, the modern utility helicopter has developed into an adaptable multi-mission tool that makes it a cost effective asset for budget-strapped defence ministries and an effective force multiplier for battlefield commanders.

By David Oliver

Source: European Defence & Security Review – Esdpa

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