Helicopters are a common problem for the scandinavian countries. Everyone seems struggling with deliveries, reliability, and costs. It is not a flattering story for European helicopters NH90 and AW101, and the American Blackhawk and Seahawk may be the solution everyone is turning to.
Recently it made headlines that Sweden is considering not using NH90 helicopters for tactical transportation because it is too expensive to use the helicopter. Apparently the operating costs amount to 200,000 SEK per hour, which is a ridiculous number.
Sweden’s adventure with NH90 has been a horror story of bad news. In 2001 Sweden signed a contract for 18 helicopters that were supposed to be delivered before 2009. Nine of these were of the maritime version (NFH: NATO Frigate Helicopter) for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare (ASW and ASuW), and nine were for tactical transportation and search-and-rescue (TTH: Tactical Transport Helicopter). Unfortunately, helicopter producer NHIndustries proved absolutely unreliable.
By 2011 Sweden had to make an urgent purchase of 15 UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters from Sikorsky to replace the aging Super Pumas that were used in Afghanistan. Sikorsky was able to deliver the first Blackhawk in only 10 months, and by 2013 Swedish Blackhawks were flying operationally in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, NHIndustries was still struggling to deliver the NH90. By 2018, nine years after the original deadline for operational status, all 18 NH90s have finally been delivered, but only five of them are fully operational. The rest are being upgraded successively.
And now it turns out that the helicopters are so expensive to use that Sweden cannot afford to use them all. The price tag of 200,000 SEP per hour also includes maintenance and spare parts which has turned out to be a sore spot for the NH90. By comparison the Blackhawk costs only 40,000 SEK per hour. So Sweden is considering options to stop using the TTH version of NH90 altogether. This will ensure that Sweden can at least afford to use the maritime version of NH90 for which the country does not currently have an alternative.
Norway gets only 40 percent flying hours out of NH90
Norway has experienced many of the same problems with NH90 as Sweden. In 2001 Norway signed a contract for 14 NH90s, of which six were to be used by the Navy for ASW, and eight were for the Coastguard for search-and-rescue and border patrol. The first NH90 was supposed to be delivered in 2006, but that did not happen. In fact, the first helicopter for the frigates only landed in Norway last month, and it is expected to take almost a year to fit it for operational status.
Norway’s saga with NH90 has practically left the Coastguard without helicopters for a few years. NH90 was supposed to be in service by 2008, but when the aging Lynx helicopters had to be retired in 2014, NH90 was still not ready. By 2017 six helicopters had been delivered to the coastguard, but they were of a temporary configuration with technical and operational limitations. For example they could not be stored in the ship’s hangar in bad weather, which practically meant that the coastguard had to leave the helicopters on land. These temporarily configured NH90s will have to return to the factory in Italy at a later point to be upgraded for full operational capability.
Norway has also experienced the high operating costs of NH90. It costs 175,000 NOK per hour to operate the NH90, and it has been argued that it would be cheaper for Norway to just scrap the NH90 and buy Seahawks instead, as they are expected to have an hourly cost of only 34,000 NOK.
Recently, an analysis from the Armed Forces showed that Norway will only be able to get 2,100 flight hours out of the entire fleet of NH90s. That is way short of the required number of 5,400 hours to fulfil all the intended tasks. This has led the Norwegian chief of defense, admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, to recommend that all NH90s are reconfigured for the Navy to be used on the frigates. This would mean that the Norwegian Coastguard requires a new solution, either by buying different helicopters, or by hiring civilian operators.
Denmark cannot do tactical transportation with AW101
Denmark has a different helicopter but many of the same problems. Denmark bought 14 AW101 Merlin helicopters (EH101) from Italian producer AgustaWestland in 2001. Eight of these were intended for maritime search-and-rescue, and six were to be used for tactical transportation tasks for the Army. However, Denmark has only been able to get about 3,500 flight hours out of the fleet annually, which is much below the required 5,200 hours. This has meant that only the SAR tasks have been solved systematically, and that Denmark has more or less given up on the prospect of using the helicopters for tactical transportation.
Heavy maintenance requirements and lack of spare parts means that the operating costs of the helicopter are high. Many numbers have circulated regarding the cost of a flight hour, but the most recent one from 2014 is just short of 100,000 DKK per hour. Furthermore, the collaboration environment between Denmark and the producer of the helicopter is not particularly good, after AgustaWestland – now branded as Leonardo Helicopters – threatened not to provide spare parts for the helicopter if Denmark didn’t delete a 500 million DKK countertrade requirement that was in the procurement contract.
In the new Danish political defense agreement, there is a decision to look closer into the lack of tactical transportation helicopters. If the analyses finds it unlikely that EH101 can begin to deliver the required flight hours, the politicians indicate that alternative solutions need to be considered. Danish defense blog nytkamply.dk speculates that Denmark could imitate Sweden and make a quick move to purchase Blackhawk helicopters.