At the end of 2019 Germany, France and Spain signed a Global Support Contract with Airbus to provide upgrades and support for their Tiger helicopter gunships. This is a long-range deal that covers the next decade and beyond if Tiger users are satisfied. The contract covers critical items like continuous improvements to keep the helicopters operational and equipped to handle new tactical or technical challenges. Airbus will be responsible for arranging repairs and supplies of spare parts from all vendors involved. Airbus will guarantee specific needs for each customer based on what that nation is using the Tigers for. This includes a guarantee for spare parts supplies delivery and aircraft availability for those specified types of missions.
This contract addresses Tiger user complaints of low availability rates and problems obtaining needed parts from many vendors. Simplifying the logistics process is something Airbus is in a better position to arrange. In other words, Airbus will handle problems with finding supplies and managing timely delivery and stockpiling of parts and monitoring quality as well. All this addresses most of the support problems and complaints Tiger users have been having. The Global Support Contract also provides all these services at the same, or lower, cost than users are currently experiencing. Tiger needs this sort of thing because it is still playing catch up with its competitors, especially the U.S. AH-64.
Tiger development began in 1987 with the goal of creating a European helicopter gunship competitive with existing ones. A year earlier the American AH-64 Apache entered service and within a decade the Tiger developers realized the AH-64 had become the gunship to match or surpass. That meant Tiger had to cost about the same to purchase and operate and provide similar availability and combat effectiveness. The Tiger used a different approach than the heavily armed and armored Apache. Tiger was much lighter aircraft, at 6.6 tons. This was a third less than the AH-64. This was achieved by the extensive use of composite materials which ended up comprising nearly 80 percent of the airframe. Tiger had a more stealthy design due to suppression of thermal radiation, low radar IR signature and its narrow silhouette. Perhaps most importantly Tiger uses only passive targeting systems. The AH-64 has passive sensors as well but also uses radar which emits a signal an enemy can detect. Both approaches have their pros and cons. The German UHT model Tiger uses Mast Mounted Sight with infra-red (heat sensing) and vidcams. France and Spain adopted the same passive sensors in most of their Tigers.
Survivability was increased with better maneuverability, plus improved self-sealing fuel tanks, system redundancies and lightweight armor than can quickly be augmented so that cannon shells of up to 23mm can be survived. Using less of the armor saves and still protects the helicopter from most machine-gun rounds. There are also sensors to detect radar or laser (targeting or range-finding) and a missile warning system that deploys chaff or flares to deal with anti-aircraft missiles.
Most Tigers are armed with a chin-mounted 30 mm autocannon and all have a wide array of armament mounted on stub wings. These include: 68 or 70 mm unguided rockets, Stinger or Mistral anti-aircraft and anti-tank guided missiles (Hot/Trigat, Spike or Hellfire II). The increased use of guided missiles, because they were more effective than a larger number of unguided rockets, meant that the lighter Tiger can carry enough missiles to be competitive with the heavier AH-64. Moreover, the lighter Tiger has a longer range and endurance than the AH-64.
In contrast, the American gunship has more powerful engines and is able to operate effectively at higher altitudes than Tiger. This proved decisive in places like Afghanistan. More importantly, the AH-64D solved its spare parts and maintenance problems more effectively than Tiger. Both aircraft can be available 90 percent of the time if they have enough spare parts available and all critical weaknesses are known. At times Tiger had the same availability rates (over 80 percent) as the AH-64. But the Tiger still suffers from unanticipated problems. For example, in late 2017 Germany allowed its 25 Tiger helicopter gunships to resume flying after being grounded for two months. The grounding order was the aftermath of the July incident where one of four German Tigers in Africa crashed during a surveillance mission. The crew died in the crash. With the resumption of flying Tiger pilots were warned to avoid flying in very turbulent weather and to be especially careful when switching from autopilot to manual controls during turbulence. Airbus, which developed and built the Tiger, kept the crash investigation going until the exact cause of the Mali crash was known. During the time that took, Tiger pilots were uneasy.
Initially, eyewitness accounts and examination of the wreckage indicated the cause was a mechanical failure because one of the rotors appeared to come off causing the helicopter to go down. The Tiger had problems like this in the past and was considered more time-consuming and costly to maintain in a combat zone than other helicopters. There have been less lethal problems (like fumes getting into the cockpit and alarming the crew) and unanticipated wear and tear rates that caused parts shortages. The Global Support Contract assures users that problems will be handled quickly and without unanticipated costs to the user.
Tiger has a crew of two and a max speed of 340 kilometers an hour with a range up to 1,300 kilometers (with external fuel tanks). Moreover, it usually stays in the air for about three hours per sortie but with external fuel tanks this time rises to 5 hours.
So far 183 Tigers have been delivered to France, Germany, Spain, and Australia and have accumulated over 130,000 flight hours to date. The last user had many problems with their custom-designed ARH variant. The Australian Tigers have gained full operational capability in 2016, seven years later than intended. Tiger integration with the U.S. made hardware was harder than expected and Airbus had problems with sufficient spare parts deliveries. Lately, the ARH Tiger has started performing more effectively and reliably and providing its promised capability. Despite that, the Australian government started to look for other more “mature” gunships to replace Tigers. Meanwhile, the European users don’t have many problems with their gunships and are satisfied with their Tigers sent to serve in Afghanistan or Mali. Those missions involved some risk and Tigers suffered damage and some losses. There was a crash in 2013 that destroyed a German UHT Tiger and a 2019 collision involving a French Tiger HAD with an older Cougar helicopter.
The Global Support Contract is a risky and potentially expensive (for AirBus) effort to overcome the fears of current or potential customers that Tiger will be abandoned by AirBus. The Global Support Contract is an AirBus assurance that Tiger will continue in service and with guaranteed performance and availability. This is expected to attract more export customers and keep existing users from cutting orders or, in the case of Australia, from leaving the program. --- Przemyslaw Juraszek