International helicopter manufacturers are refining their response to South Korea's RFP to develop and produce more than 500 helicopters, and bracing for a down-select next month.
The Korea Multi-Role Helicopter project, which has been in the works for more than seven years, took a step forward in mid-February. South Korea's Ministry of National Defense issued a notice of a weapon systems acquisition plan to replace the aging fleets of AH-1S, MD500 and UH-1H helicopters used by the nation's army, navy and air force.
Competitors lined up to bid on the project include AgustaWestland, Bell Helicopter Textron, Eurocopter, Kamov and Sikorsky.
The project aims to acquire two aircraft types: 338 utility and 180 attack helicopters. A key requirement of the program is to maximize commonality of major components. The twin-engine aircraft would have a maximum takeoff weight of about 15,000 lb. (6,800 kg.).
The program calls for spending about $12.5 billion over 30 years, of which roughly $670 million would be for design and production of the first aircraft. A goal is to have 72 percent of the aircraft's systems use indigenous Korean technology, with the rest coming from foreign partners.
The program calls for selection of foreign partners next month, completion of a plan for development in September and development work start ing in October. The goal is to field the utility version by 2010 and the attack helicopter by 2012.
The Agency for Defense Development is designated as the lead agency to conduct a conceptual study and conduct exploratory development, or engineering and manufacturing design. Korea Aerospace Industries has been designated at the lead to conduct full-scale development.
Challenges facing the Korea Multi-Role Helicopter include sustaining funding for it. The defense and commerce ministries each had requested $4.2 million in their 2004 budgets to start development of the concept for the helicopter, but only received $1.2 million from the National Assembly, according to officials in Seoul.
Another challenge is that some of the aircraft slated for replacement by the multi-role helicopter are scheduled to be retired in 2008. It would be difficult, to say the least, to develop and field a new helicopter in six to eight years. Given the apparent two-year gap between retirements and introduce of the utility version of the new helicopter, South Korea may be forced to acquire current-production aircraft, such as additional Blackhawks, or opt for an upgrade, such as the variety being offered by Bell and other vendors for the Huey. South Korea recently signed a seven-year contract for Huey parts. The need for interim measures obviously would increase if the Multi-Role Helicopter programs slips at all.
A major challenge lies in South Korea's desire to use the new project as a platform for developing indigenous helicopter design and manufacturing capabilities. It has some capability now. Korea Aerospace Industries, the lead outfit for full-scale development of the multi-role helicopter, builds SB427s under an agreement with Bell and produces Boeing AH-64 Apache fuselages and tail booms. Korean Air has jointly produced Black Hawk helicopters under license from Sikorsky for the Korean military, the first of which entered service in 1990. Those companies have a pact to cooperate on the development of multi-purpose helicopters.