Norway Is Done With Its Unreliable NH90 Helicopters, Wants $500M Back
No amount of money, spare parts, or maintenance time will get the Airbus-built rotorcraft flying reliably, Norwegian defense officials say.
In a dramatic move protesting the rotorcraft's abysmal operational availability, Norway has canceled its contract for NH90 helicopters and has immediately and permanently grounded its entire fleet. Norway also wants back the $500 million it paid manufacturer NHI Industries for the 13 helicopters in its fleet, in addition to interest and other expenses.
Thirteen of the 14 NH90 helicopters on order are delivered, but only eight arrived in a fully operational configuration, according to the Norwegian Defense Ministry. Where the fleet is required to fly 3,900 hours a year, it averages just 700 hours annually. The helicopters spend more time in the shop than in the air, Norwegian Minister of Defense Bjørn Arild Gram said figuratively.
“Regrettably, we have reached the conclusion that no matter how many hours our technicians work and how many parts we order, it will never make the NH90 capable of meeting the requirements of the Norwegian Armed Forces,” Gram said in a prepared statement. “Based on a joint recommendation by the Armed Forces and associated departments and agencies, the Norwegian Government has therefore decided to end the introduction of the NH90 and has authorized the Norwegian Defence Material Agency to terminate the contract.” The agency is preparing to return the helicopters to NHI, along with all spares and other equipment it has received.
Norway signed the initial contract for 14 NH90s in 2001, eight for the Coast Guard and six to serve on Fridtjof Nansen class frigates. They were supposed to replace the Westland Lynx in anti-submarine warfare, utility, search-and-rescue, and other maritime missions. Initially slated for delivery by the end of 2008, the fleet still is not complete, and the helicopters in service cannot perform the missions for which they were bought, said Gro Jære, Director General of the Norwegian Defence Materiel Agency.
NHI, a consortium of European aircraft and defense manufacturers led by Airbus and established specifically to build the NH90, said it is “extremely disappointed” by Norway’s decision and “refutes the allegations being made against the NH90 as well as the company.” The company also questioned whether Norway could legally scuttle the NH90 deal but did not explicitly threaten legal action.
NHI said it was not offered the possibility to discuss a proposal to improve the availability of the NH90 in Norway or to address Norway's requirements before the plug was pulled.
“The NH90's inherent characteristics offer any armed forces with an advanced, fully integrated mission capability, survivability, speed, range of action, discretion as well as night and all-weather operations without equal in the world in its category. In its naval configuration, it is an incomparable asset to answer the needs of Norwegian Armed Forces, allowing the most advanced surveillance capabilities in the North Sea, just as the NH90 is doing elsewhere across Europe at sea protecting nations,” NHI said in a June 10 statement. “NHIndustries and its partner companies are and have continuously been absolutely committed to addressing the concerns previously expressed and have brought the appropriate and tailored solutions to the table to meet the specific and unique Norwegian requirements. With 13 helicopters delivered out of 14 and the fourteenth ready for acceptance, we were close to finalizing the main scope of the initial contract.”
Gram said Norway must find a suitable maritime helicopter to replace the NH90 quickly. Without mentioning specific helicopters, he said Norway will "consider several alternative approaches to meeting our operational requirements, but we must be prepared for the fact that there will be no easy solutions." That likely will include the Sikorsky MH-60 Seahawk helicopters Norway considered as a Lynx replacement before going with the NH90.
Norway is one of 14 nations that operate the NH90. The others are Australia, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Oman, Qatar, Spain, and Sweden. Of those countries, Norway is not the only one that has struggled with keeping the aircraft fit for service. On the same day the Norway ditched its NH90 fleet, the Qatar Emiri Air Force accepted its fifth helicopter.
Citing similar difficulties with maintenance and availability, Australia in December announced it is ditching its fleet of MRH90 battlefield utility helicopters, a variant of the NH90 also known locally in that country as the Taipan, and replacing them with U.S.-built UH-60 Black Hawks. Australia chose the NH90 over Sikorsky’s UH-60M in 2004. The European-built helicopter entered Australian service in 2008, and the fleet of 46 Taipans will now retire a decade ahead of schedule to make way for about 40 Black Hawks.
“The performance of the MRH90 Taipan has been an ongoing and well-documented concern for [the Australian Ministry of Defense], and there has been a significant effort at great expense to try to remediate those issues,” Australian Minister for Defense Peter Dutton said in December. “It is critically important there is a safe, reliable, and capable utility helicopter available for our servicemen and women into the future, with reasonable and predictable operating costs.”
NHI has delivered 471 NH90s to its customers, and the global fleet has flown just over 327,000 hours. The helicopter was designed to provide European NATO countries with a standard, and interoperable multi-role rotorcraft focused on coastal patrol, anti-submarine warfare, search-and-rescue, coastal patrol, and utility operations.
With two nations now having ditched their fleets, the Airbus-led consortium that includes Italy’s Leonardo Helicopters and Dutch aircraft manufacturer Fokker is dealt a huge blow.
Airbus has expressed concern that U.S. military rotorcraft manufacturers will dominate the market once the U.S. Army’s new Future Vertical Lift family of advanced rotorcraft comes online in the 2030s. Non-U.S. NATO members will also be looking for next-generation rotorcraft (NGRC) that will replace about 1,000 medium-lift helicopters set to retire by 2040. Those nations face a choice between hitching a ride on the U.S. Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) program or joining forces as they did with the NH90 and building a competing design. They could also opt for a more traditional helicopter design from the U.S. or Europe.
If NHI's customer base continues to collapse, the ground could be laid for European militaries to flock toward the U.S. when the time comes to modernize their rotorcraft fleets.
Contact the author: Dan@thewarzone.com