To say that it is an ambitious product would be an understatement, but to say that it is impossible would be exaggeration. However, France and Germany have certainly set themselves a difficult task. Both countries want to procure a common heavy lift helicopter. Germany needs to replace its Sikorsky CH-53G aircraft by around 2020, while the French armed forces, which have not previously operated a heavy lift rotorcraft, have discovered the need for such a machine in the canyons of Afghanistan and in the wide open spaces of Chad, west Africa, where the Armée de Terre (French Army) have a major peacekeeping operation. Moreover, both France and Germany are mindful that, as well as requiring a means to move heavy equipment and troops into areas bereft of airstrips, they also need an aircraft that is capable of performing humanitarian assistance operations such as the evacuation of large numbers of civilians from disaster areas, or the movement of food and medical supplies.
Although the out-of-service date for the CH-53Gs illustrates just how pressing Germany’s need for a new heavy lift helicopter is, history may not be on Paris and Berlin’s side. The pan-European Airbus A400M turboprop military airlifter, which involves France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Belgium and Luxembourg, is currently running around fours years late regarding its service entry with the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force), the launch customer. The situation for pan-European helicopter programs looks little better. The NH Industries NH-90 troop transport and naval helicopter, a joint program involving France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal, is suffering delays of up to two years for the NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) version of the aircraft to enter service.
The Franco-German heavy lift initiative can be traced back to 2006, when the Ministries of Defence of France and Germany announced a wish to acquire a new heavy lift helicopter and released a Request for Information to this end. Both countries are looking for a rotorcraft which can lift up to 13 tons, or 70 fully-equipped troops, more than 540 nautical miles (1,000 kilometers). The maximum take-off weight of the helicopter is in the region of 35 tons.
Eurocopter has been tasked by the governments to devise a design which could fulfil this requirement. The company has looked at developing its own heavy lift helicopter before, unveiling a concept design for such an aircraft at the Berlin Air Show in 2006 as a potential replacement for Germany’s CH-53Gs. The aircraft was envisaged to have three powerplants, each producing 6,700 horsepower (5,000 kilowatts), a maximum 650-nm (1,200-km) range and a 160-knot (300-kilometres-per-hour) top speed. However, the company is reaching out to American and Russian partners to develop a design capable of meeting France and Germany’s requirements, and it would appear that plans by the company to develop its own heavy lift helicopter have, for now, been shelved, although this is denied by Eurocopter’s Dominique Maudet, executive vice president of Governmental helicopters. When speaking to Rotor & Wing at this years’ Paris Air Show, he emphasized that Eurocopter was not necessarily pledging that the heavy lift helicopter will be a completely new design, "but it could be." Either way, the aircraft is a big in both scope and size: "two to three times bigger than the NH-90," notes Maudet.
The procurement of the helicopter will be performed through the European Defence Agency (EDA); an organization of the European Union tasked with deepening pan-European cooperation in armaments procurement. However, the involvement of the EDA in the project indicates that the cost of developing such an aircraft themselves will just be too much for the French and German governments combined. "We will need a big budget to start from scratch", concedes Maudet.
Instead, the company is looking at existing aircraft designs which can be modernized to meet the requirement, and plans to "pick and choose elements and concepts from other aircraft for the design," which will eventually fulfil the Franco-German requirement.
France and Germany’s strategy for procuring the heavy lift rotorcraft is essentially simple. A standard, existing heavy lift helicopter design will be used as the baseline airframe that will then be extensively modified to meet the requirements. The candidate aircraft are the Boeing CH-47F Chinook, Mil Mi-26T and the Sikorsky CH-53K. Experiments to find the ideal airframe have already begun. In November 2008, the French DGA (Délégation Générale pour l’Armement) procurement agency received a Mi-26T on loan, which was flown for a series of flight trials at Istres Air Force Base in the south of France near Eurocopter’s headquarters and factory near Marseilles. Broadly speaking, French Army officials who participated in the test flights found the Mi-26T to be a satisfactory airframe, although with a five-person crew, a substantial modernization of the types’ avionics will be required to reduce the aircraft’s flight crew from five to three people. However, the Mi-26T is a relatively inexpensive option, costing around $10 million per unit. Moreover, Eurocopter could share the avionics development with the Suhopútnyje vojská Rossíjskoj Federácii (Russian Army) which operates the aircraft, and which plans to upgrade all 16 in its fleet.
The Sikorsky CH-53K would bring its own attractions as a candidate airframe for conversion into a heavy lift platform. Firstly, Germany is familiar with operating the CH-53G type. Secondly, the CH-53, which has over 40 illustrious years of US Navy and Marines service under its belt, would provide France with a maritime heavy lift capability by virtue of its design. Heavy lift from the sea is a particularly important capability for the Marine Nationale (French Navy) in particular, which took delivery of the Tonnerre and Mistral amphibious support ships in 2006, which have large helicopter decks with a forward landing spot strengthened to accommodate a CH-53 or Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey-sized aircraft.
The Boeing CH-47F solution is, perhaps, the ‘dark horse’. On one hand it could be one of the more expensive options, but on the other hand, would offer a high degree of commonality with Europe’s other Chinook operators; principally the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Spain and the United Kingdom. This could help to reduce costs all around to operators through the possible pooling of maintenance assets and spare parts. Moreover, both the Sikorsky CH-53K and CH-47F aircraft are at the start of their assembly. This could allow Eurocopter to ‘bleed off’ airframes from the existing production run for the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army, and convert them into the heavy lift aircraft either in the United States or at Eurocopter’s facilities in Europe.
On one hand, the promise of American participation, and therefore American jobs, in the heavy lift helicopter’s production could be a key factor in encouraging Boeing or Sikorsky’s full participation for the project. However, both the French and German governments will be under considerable pressure from trade unions and parliamentarians at home to ensure that jobs building the future heavy lifter remain in Europe. Either way, Eurocopter will have to walk a delicate line should it choose an American design as the baseline airframe. However, Maudet notes that American participation would bring major benefits: "The U.S. coming into the project would be a strong asset."
In fact, Reuters reported in March 2009 that American participation in the project is looking increasingly likely, following discussions of the program by Department of Defense officials. Despite that the CH-47F is expected to remain in U.S. Army service until at least circa 2030, with the CH-53K flying with the USMC until at least 2040, both services will have to consider what heavy lift rotorcraft solution will fulfil this role for each service after these airframes retire. Having a heavy lift helicopter developed with European assistance and ready to enter service in the 2030 – 40 timeframe could offer significant cost savings to both services. Moreover, commonality with European operators would help to reduce the support costs of the aircraft for the Army and the Marines.
The project has also received significant endorsement from the European Union (EU) with General Henri Bentegeat, chief of the EU’s Military Committee, which gives military advice to the EU’s Political and Security Committee (which in turn oversees EU foreign and defence policy). He endorsed the heavy lift program during the EDA’s Helicopters — Key To Mobility conference, which studied methods of addressing the perennial issues of rotary shortfall across the European continent in March this year.
Although a Franco-German initiative, with the program now under the auspices of the EDA this will enable other European countries to participate in the project and, crucially, bring development funds to the table during what promises to be an expensive acquisition.
The final requirements for the helicopter are expected to be agreed by France and Germany by 2009 and, according to Maudet, Eurocopter will have a full concept definition of the aircraft by 2012. The signing of a contract for the helicopters is expected to follow soon afterwards with initial deliveries scheduled for 2017.
This seems an optimistic schedule as it is entirely possibly that the program could be subject to delays. The path of pan-European defence projects has not always run smoothly, with the A400M and NH-90 being two notable examples. However, US participation in the initiative could bring the vital technical expertise required to build such a large rotorcraft. Apart from Russia, the United States is the only country which has succeeded in developing heavy lift helicopters and crucially, future U.S. Marines and Army requirements may bring much-needed developmental funding.