Air Transportation: Sweden Is Not Pleased

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March 8, 2018: Sweden joins a growing number of dissatisfied users of the European made NH90 helicopters. NH90 first flew in 1995 and entered service in 2007. The manufacturer is a consortium of French, German, Dutch and Italian firms that promised to fix all the problems and eventually did, mostly. But some problems have proved intractable. Sweden pointed out that its 18 NH90s cost over $24,000 an hour to operate while its American made UH-60s cost only $4,500 an hour. Moreover the Swedish NH90s had a low readiness rate, about half that of the UH-60. Sweden had similar experience to other NH90 users and, unlike the naval versions of the UH-60, the naval version of NH90 had even more problems. In desperation Sweden ordered 16 UH-60s to fill in until the NH90 is fixed. Getting the NH90 to be comparable in performance to the older UH-60 appears to be perpetual problem.

Many NH90 problems have been around for a while and were quite embarrassing when first revealed. In addition there is a long list of other problems that have been fixed, but should not have been present in the first place. For example in 2009 the German Army conducted an evaluation of their new NH90 helicopters and found that for combat missions another model helicopter should be used whenever possible, at least until the NH90 could be fixed. A particular problem was the lack of ground clearance. The NH90 could not land on a piece of ground with any obstacles higher than 16 cm (6.4 inches). That makes many battlefield landing zones problematic. That assumes you could even get on a NH90 and find a seat. The passenger seats could hold more than 110 kg (242 pounds). Combat equipment for German troops weighs 25 kg (55 pounds), meaning any soldier weighing more than 85 kg (187) has to take stuff off, put it on the floor then quickly put it back on before exiting. Then there's the floor, it was not very sturdy and combat troops using the helicopter for a short while caused damage that took the helicopter out of action for repairs. Worse, there is the rear ramp. It could not support troops carrying all their equipment, making it useless for rapid exits of combat troops. There was not enough room in the passenger compartment for door gunners. There were no strap downs for larger weapons, like portable rocket launchers or anti-aircraft missiles. The passenger compartment also did not allow for carrying cargo and passengers at the same time. The winch was not sturdy enough for commandoes to perform fast roping operations. And so on. Most of these problems have since been fixed, sort of. Before changes made it got so bad that only four of the 39 NH90s the German army had were available for combat. Even when all the problems were fixed the NH90s were still plagued by a low readiness rate.

Originally Germany ordered 122 NH90s at a cost of over $50 million each. Because of all the problems and continued cuts in the defense budget most of those on order were cancelled. The ten ton NH90 can carry 21 troops or twelve casualties on stretchers, plus the crew of two. The Germans and Australians noted that when it worked the NH90 performed quite well. But other users also had problems early on. For example in 2010 Australia received eight of the 50 NH90 helicopters it ordered, and was not happy with the aircraft's performance. The overall complaint was poor reliability, design and durability. Many more spare parts had to be stocked than was originally planned. There were long waits to get needed spares from the manufacturer (NHIndustries). Called the MRH90 in Australian service, the experience was similar to what the Germans encountered with their NH90s.

So far only about 500 NH90s have been ordered or delivered, compared to over 4,000 of the American Blackhawk (UH-60). The Blackhawk design is twenty years older than that of the NH90. 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. NH90 can carry over four tons of cargo or 20 troops. Max speed is 300 kilometers an hour and endurance is over 2.5 hours. The big difference is in cost, with new NH90s more than twice as expensive as a new Blackhawk and much more expensive to operate. But the UH-60 is combat proven, has a higher availability rate and popular with combat troops. That often makes the difference for export customers.

 


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