Naval Air: Rust Never Sleeps For The NH90


July 14, 2014: The Netherlands has halted deliveries of the ten NH90 NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) after the two sent off aboard frigates for its first combat operation, with the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia, came back with severe corrosion damage. Some corrosion is expected on naval helicopters but what was found on the NH90s was far beyond what was supposed to occur. This was found to be the result of design and manufacturing errors. This included selecting the wrong materials for some components. The manufacturer has addressed most of the problems and will have all of them taken care of by the end of 2014. At that point, if the Dutch Navy is satisfied with the fixes, the seven remaining NH90 NFHs can be delivered.

The NFH was used off Somalia for reconnaissance and, when necessary, attacking pirates caught in the act of trying to seize a ship. The NFH was designed mainly for ASW (anti-submarine warfare) but changes in the design caused the NFH to become too heavy, when equipped for ASW work, to operate off the Dutch frigates they were meant for. While as roomy inside as the competing S-70 and the EH-101, the NH90 is compact enough to operate from the smallest frigates and even some 1,000 ton class corvettes. Alas, the manufacturer could not keep the weight of the NFH under control and now it can only perform some functions when serving on smaller ships.

The Netherlands is using the NH90 to replace its Lynx helicopters. The NFH version carries two pilots and a sensor operator. ASW sensors include dipping sonar and sonobuoys, magnetic anomaly detector, FLIR (heat sensing) radar, and electronic warfare gear. When not carrying the ASW equipment, the NFH can still be used for scouting and transporting personnel and cargo to and from frigates.

Complaints about the NH90 are not new. Back in 2010 the German Army Air Mobility and Air Transport School conducted an evaluation. They had a lot of complaints. Their conclusion was that, for combat missions, another model helicopter should be used whenever possible until some serious flaws with the NH90 were fixed. The manufacturer eventually addressed most of these problems. The ten ton NH-90 can carry 21 troops or twelve casualties on stretchers, plus the crew of two. It first flew in 1995. Costing about $50-60 million each, the ten ton NH90 has a max speed of 300 kilometers an hour and has an endurance of up to five hours. The naval version can carry a pair of light weight torpedoes or anti-ship missiles.

Meanwhile, the NH90 is eating into the export market for American made UH-60 Blackhawk transport helicopters. Over 500 NH90s have been sold so far and at least 40 percent of those have been delivered. NH90 often beats out Blackhawks for sales. American armed forces currently use some 2,000 Blackhawks, and hundreds more have been sold to overseas customers.

The manufacturer, NH Industries, is a consortium of French, German, Dutch, and Italian firms. The Blackhawk design is twenty years older than that of the NH90. What the NH90 is doing now is catching up in the experience department. Although the latest version of the Blackhawk is up to date technically, it is slightly smaller and lighter than the NH90 and can only carry eleven troops. Blackhawk max speed is 285 kilometers an hour and endurance is 2.1 hours. The NH90 has more powerful engines and larger fuel capacity. The big difference is in cost, with new NH90s more than twice as expensive as a new Blackhawk. A major sales obstacle for the NH90 is that the UH-60 is combat proven and popular with combat troops.

For many bargain conscious nations, Russian helicopters are preferred. In particular, the Mi-8, or export version called Mi-17, are still in big demand. This chopper is about twice the size and weight of the UH-1, but only hauls about 50 percent more cargo. However, the Mi-8 has a larger interior and can carry 24 troops, versus a dozen in the UH-1. The UH-1 was replaced by the UH-60 in the 1980s, while the Mi-8 just kept adding better engines and electronics to the basic Mi-8 frame. But the UH-60, while weighing twice as much as the 4.8 ton UH-1, could carry as much as the 12 ton Mi-8. However, the Mi-8 costs about half as much as a UH-60 and the larger interior is popular with many users. Nearly 3,000 Mi-17s have been exported. If you want the best (or at least most expensive) you get the NH-90, if you want mobility for the least cost you get the Mi-17. If you want something in between you get the UH-60. Many peacekeeping and humanitarian operations go for the Mi-17, which can be leased from East European firms, complete with maintenance crews and English speaking pilots.





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