The French military has ordered 38 of the new Airbus H160M helicopters, to be used as replacements for 420 existing (and aging) helicopters. The older helicopters comprise six different models serving with the army, navy and air force. The military would eventually buy 190 H160Ms to replace the existing helicopters as they retire over the next fifteen years. The military was encouraged to choose one light helicopter model to replace all the existing models because manufacturer Airbus has, so far, made good on its plan to rapidly design, develop test and get certified the H160 civilian model. Work began in 2011 and the prototype was delivered in 2015 and the first flight took place in mid-2015.
The H160 takes advantage of new design and construction technologies Airbus (and other major aircraft builders) have adopted in the last two decades. For example, the H160 makes extensive use of computer-based design and manufacturing as well as electronic control and monitoring systems. This meant the H160 uses a lot of composites, has fly-by-wire flight controls (which eliminates all the hydraulics). The H160 is much quieter than existing designs and delivers a much smoother ride. Compared to comparable existing designs the H160 is 15 percent lighter, has 15 percent lower operating costs and is easier to maintain and can achieve higher readiness rates. Greater use of computers also provides simpler flight controls and standard capabilities like computer-assisted landing. The first H160 will be delivered to customers at the end of 2018 or early 2019.
The twin-engine H160 is a 6 ton transport that can carry 1.7 ton payload. That means up to ten passengers. Max speed is 325 kilometers an hour while cruise speed is 287 kilometers. Range is 852 kilometers and average endurance is 2.5 hours. Max altitude is 5,900 meters (19,300 feet).
Adding features needed for the H160M means deliveries of these won’t begin until 2022. The H160M has to be modified for search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare, electronic surveillance and general reconnaissance. The H160M can be armed with a 20mm autocannon and guided missiles (like the 70mm unguided rocket equipped with a laser guidance system). The military also wants to equip the H160M with sensors to detect small UAVs so that they can be taken down electronically or using a sniper. The smooth ride of the H160 makes a sniper a viable alternative to a light machine-gun. Another military option is air-to-air refueling to extend range for some missions. The military version used for special operations will also be equipped for all-weather and night flying. In addition to equipping the military version for all these specialist tasks, there is also a list of mechanical and electronic upgrades to be installed over the next 5-10 years as the new tech completes development and certification.
Airbus is under a lot of pressure to deliver, on time, the new H160M and prove they have learned how to avoid problems with earlier military helicopters like the NH90 transport and Tiger gunship. Then there is the problem plagued A400M turboprop four engine transport. Airbus eventually got all these aircraft operational but after delays and performance problems that did not encourage customers to regard AirBus with much confidence. The H160M is the opportunity to show that Airbus can do the job as effectively as their American (and eventually Chinese) competitors. When it comes to military helicopters Airbus also has to watch out for South Korea, which has also entered the market. France firms are major components of the Airbus consortium so the French military is taking a chance as well. If the first 38 A160Ms are as troublesome as other recent Airbus helicopters, additional orders will be cut or canceled and Airbus will have a difficult (and unprofitable) time trying to stay in the military helicopter business.