Norway has become the latest in a long list of dissatisfied customers for the Airbus NH90 helicopters produced since 1995. NH90 entered service in 2007. Norway was one of the first customers, ordering 14 NH90s in 2001 for naval and coast guard duties. Airbus agreed to deliver these by 2008. Airbus was not able to deliver on time and delays continued to the present. Norway wants to cancel the deal and get a refund for payments already made. This is nothing new for the NH90 and these disputes tend to eventually be settled before ending up in a very newsworthy trial with more testimony and detail than Airbus wants to see publicized.
The Norway nightmare comes after an even more embarrassing example last year when Australia decided to retire its 48 NH90 helicopters early and replace them with cheaper and more reliable American UH-60s. Australia called its 48 NH90s the MRH90. The use of a variant on “NH90” is common among many customers for helicopters. Six of the Australian helicopters were the Airbus MRH-90 ASW (anti-submarine warfare) helicopter. These are being replaced by six more American MH-60R helicopters for ASW work. The navy already has some MH-60Rs and that experience reinforced the UH-60 reputation for being cheaper to operate (per flight hour) as well as cheaper to buy than the NH90.
The new UH/MH-60s for Australia will join 29 AH-64E Apache gunships also ordered to replace 22 Airbus Tiger gunships that began arriving in 2004. Australia decided to replace the Tigers in 2016, for many of the same reasons that made the MRH-90s expendable. It took longer to select a new gunship, even though there were only three viable candidates; the AH-64E and smaller and cheaper models like the American AH-1Z and Italian A129. The only other producer of military transport and gunship helicopters is Russia and these are rarely considered by Western buyers because of performance issues.
The Tiger costs about as much as the AH-64, a heavier (ten-ton) gunship that has been in service since the 1980s. The six-ton Tiger has a crew of two and a max speed of 280 kilometers an hour. It cruises at 230 kilometers an hour and usually stays in the air about three hours per sortie. It is armed with a 30mm automatic cannon, 70mm rocket pods (19 rockets per pod), and various types of air-to-ground missiles (eight Hellfire types at once). It can also carry four Mistral anti-aircraft missiles.
The first twelve Australian AH-64s will arrive in 2026 and the rest by 2028. The AH-64E is the latest iteration of the famous tank buster gunship which has been used by the U.S. Army since 1984 when the AH-64A entered service. So far about 2,400 Apache’s have been delivered to customers in various versions. The latest model, the AH-64E, entered service in 2011 and attracted many export customers, including India, Saudi Arabia and Britain. The AH-64 is a heavily armed and armored attack helicopter with a maximum takeoff weight of 11.5 tons. Efforts to develop a replacement for Apache have had a difficult time coming up with a new gunship that is worth the cost of developing to replace the constantly upgraded Apache. For that reason, production of Apache is expected to continue until at least 2040 and possibly even 2050. The Apache of 2021 is a much different and better helicopter than the original 1986 model.
The basic shape of the helicopter gunship has not changed since the AH-1 first appeared in the 1960s. As China has discovered, designing and building helicopters is even more difficult than developing jet fighters and commercial airliners. Usable helicopters did not appear until 1945 but widely useful military and civilian models did not appear until the late 1950s when the UH-1 entered service.
Airbus became a serious competitor for American commercial air transport manufacturers but was less successful with their Eurocopter division, which incorporated French, German and Spanish helicopter manufacturers. There are still British and Italian firms competing for military and civilian sales. Eurocopter took on the UH-60/AH-64 dominance of the military helicopter market and largely failed to match the success of the American manufacturers.
The MH-60R and MRH90 are similar in capabilities but the MRH90 costs about 20 percent more. MH-60R entered service in 1985 and is considered more reliable than the MRH90, which entered service in 2007 and had a lot of equipment and reliability problems, some of them still unresolved. Despite that 471 have been built so far. The UH-60 model has been produced in large numbers so far, with more than 4,000 in service or on order.
In 2010 Australia received eight of the 50 NH90 helicopters it ordered, and was not happy with the aircraft's performance. The Australian experience was similar to what the Germans and other customers encountered with their NH90s. The overall complaint is poor reliability, design, and durability. Many more spare parts must be stocked than was originally planned. There have been long waits to get needed spares from the manufacturer NHIndustries, which is a French division Airbus that develops and produces military helicopters.
The German Army conducted an evaluation of their new NH90 helicopters, and were not pleased. Their conclusion was that, for combat missions, another model helicopter should be used whenever possible. A particular problem was the lack of ground clearance. The NH-90 can't 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 can even get on a NH90 and find a seat. The passenger seats cannot 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 pounds) must take stuff off, put it on the floor, then quickly put it back on before exiting. Then there's the floor, it's not very sturdy, and combat troops using the helicopter for a short while cause damage that takes the helicopter out of action for repairs. Worse, there is the rear ramp. It cannot support troops carrying all their equipment, making it useless for rapid exits of combat troops. There is not enough room in the passenger compartment for door gunners. There are no strap downs for larger weapons, like portable rocket launchers or anti-aircraft missiles. The passenger compartment also does not allow for carrying cargo and passengers at the same time. The winch is not sturdy enough for commandos to perform fast roping operations. And so on. The Germans were not pleased with the NH-90.
Germany was one of the first customers for the NH-90s and plans to procure 122. It may take until 2030 to complete that purchase. The ten-ton NH-90 can carry 21 troops or twelve casualties on stretchers, plus the crew of two. It first flew in 1995.
Europe already has several veteran helicopter manufacturers, as does the United States. Airbus wants to be competitive across a wide range of aircraft and has found that experience is more expensive, time-consuming than expected. Their recent experience in Australia and Norway are examples of how initial success is difficult to sustain.