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Thoroughly modern military

Posted 25 March 2019 · Add Comment

The Middle East continues to be a fruitful market for military helicopter suppliers – whether US, European or Russian – as several nations either modernise or look to expand their rotorcraft fleets.

Countries across the region are investing billions of dollars in new military helicopter acquisitions, from heavy-lift platforms that can carry out troop transport and casualty evacuation missions, to specialist platforms such as scout helicopters and attack helicopters that are able to support ground forces with an array of rockets, missiles and cannons.
There is, equally, a push to acquire naval helicopters, especially as maritime modernisation expands in countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Conflict and ongoing operations in the region are key drivers behind this modernisation, with many militaries ensuring their helicopter fleets are up to date to meet future threats on land and at sea, whether they be state or non-state in origin.
In March 2018, it was announced that Qatar had signed a contract for 28 NH90 helicopters. Of the 28, a total of 16 twin-engine helicopters will be in tactical transport (TTH) configuration, with Airbus Helicopters in Marignane, France, responsible for final assembly and delivery of those variants.
The remaining 12 will be in naval (NFH) configuration and assembled and delivered by Leonardo from its Venice-Tessera facility in northern Italy.
The NH90 has also been acquired by Oman, and was recently utilised in the much-publicised Saif Sareea 3 exercise with the UK at the end of 2018.
European manufacturer, Airbus Helicopters, has achieved additional successes, including a Kuwaiti contract for 30 H225M Caracal multirole utility helicopters with associated support and services packages worth around $1.14 billion.
Kuwait has been an important partner for Airbus Helicopters over the last few decades, with the country operating AS332 Super Puma, SA330 Puma, and Gazelle helicopters. The first deliveries of the H225M are expected next year, according to Airbus.
“Some of our largest contracts in recent years have come from the Africa and Middle East region,” said an Airbus Helicopters spokesperson. “We continue to see opportunities for the H225M and for NH90 across the region and we see a lot of interest in our newer products, such as the H160.”
Military helicopters from US manufacturers – namely Sikorsky, Bell and Boeing – continue to be popular, especially as sales are often supported by US funding under foreign military sales (FMS) deals.
In October 2018, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced that the State Department had cleared the way for Iraq to acquire five new Bell 407GX attack helicopters.
“The addition of five Bell 407GX helicopters will help compensate for the combat loss of seven IA407 helicopters in recent years and increase the Iraqi Security Forces’ combat effectiveness against ISIS and other terrorist elements in Iraq,” said the DSCA announcement.
The UAE also operates 30 armed 407 multirole helicopters (MRH) modified by NorthStar Aviation.
Bell and NorthStar previously teamed to develop a twin-engine 429MRH variant, which was demonstrated at IDEX 2017 alongside a real 407MRH belonging to the UAE Joint Aviation Command. A source familiar with the project, however, noted that the 429MRH had now been effectively shelved owing to lack of customer interest.
In April 2018, the DSCA also announced the possible FMS of 12 AH-1Z Zulu attack helicopters to Bahrain for an estimated cost of $911.4 million. “Our military products are only acquired by sovereign nations through the US FMS programme,” said Doug Wolfe, Bell’s global military business development director for the MENA region.
“The Zulu’s lower acquisition costs and best-in-class lifecycle and expeditionary attributes make it the perfect choice for a modern national defence,” he added.
As well as new aircraft, Bahrain is also upgrading its legacy fleet. In 2018, photos appeared online showing one of the Royal Bahraini Air Force’s newly-upgraded AH-1 Cobras. A contract was signed with Turkish Aerospace Industries and Aselsan in 2015 for a range of upgrades, including a new ASELFLIR-300T electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) turret and a glass cockpit, as well as other system upgrades.
According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) Military Balance, Bahrain currently has 34 AH-1 Cobras in its inventory, made up of E, F and P variants. These are located at Riffa Air Base.
Jordan is another AH-1 Cobra operator, with enough helicopters for two squadrons. Up to 12 of those Cobras have gone, or are going through, comprehensive upgrades in the US with Science and Engineering Services (SES) and Northrop Grumman responsible for extending their out-of-service date by another 20 years.
Northrop Grumman is overseeing a complete avionics upgrade, which the company said provides a “cost-effective solution” and an alternative to purchasing brand new aircraft. “In the future, we anticipate increased demand and opportunities for rotorcraft in the Middle East, primarily driven by aging fleets and the need to equip rotorcraft with advanced, multi-mission capabilities,” said Ed Griebel, director, land & avionics C4ISR division, Northrop Grumman.
This marked the first time an AH-1F/S operator has digitally upgraded its aircraft since the aircraft were built in the 80s. This was enabled by Northrop Grumman’s integrated mission equipment package (iMEP), which includes a commercially available FlightPro Gen III mission computer, a full suite of liquid-crystal display (LCD) multifunction displays, an embedded software digital map and navigation controls. An external change is the incorporation of the Wescam MX-15Di EO/IR turret to improve reconnaissance and targeting capability.
Northrop Grumman announced in June 2018 that the first upgraded AH-1F had now been shipped to Jordan and would undertake weapons testing and final acceptance by the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF).
Jordan also received 12 new UH-60M Black Hawks throughout 2017 to strengthen the country’s quick reaction force.
Bahrain was the first MENA customer for the latest ‘Mike’ variant of the Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin UH-60 Black Hawk, with first deliveries taking place in 2009. The UAE is another customer for the M variant, and several of these aircraft are now going through customisation to carry a range of air-to-ground weapons on outboard pylons.
It was revealed in 2018 that Lockheed Martin had completed qualification trials of the UH-60M weaponisation kit, which is being led by Sikorsky’s Polish company, PZL Mielec.
The most successful attack helicopter in the region continues to be the Boeing AH-64 Apache, with more than 100 examples in four countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Egypt.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have deployed Apaches as part of coalition operations in Yemen, with several airframe losses reported.
In December 2016, it was announced that the DSCA had approved the sale of 37 AH-64E Apaches (28 remanufactured + 9 new build) to the UAE. The deal is worth $3.5 billion, although a definitive contract has yet to be announced. Qatar is also preparing to receive its first AH-64E Apaches by next year, as part of a deal for 24 examples signed in 2016.
Boeing’s CH-47F Chinook also continues to make its mark in the region, most recently with Saudi Arabia. In May, it was announced that US Army Contracting Command had placed a $25.7 million order with Boeing for eight CH-47Fs that will be destined for the Royal Saudi Land Forces Aviation Command.
These will supplement a sizeable UH-60 Black Hawk fleet, including 17 new M variants that were contracted as part of an FMS deal in 2018. These aircraft will be operated by both the National Guard and Royal Saudi Land Forces Airborne Special Security Forces.
In September, the Royal Saudi Naval Forces also received the first of 10 MH-60Rs, which are being acquired as part of a 2015 FMS deal worth $1.6 billion. Five of those aircraft will be stationed at US Naval Station Mayport, Florida, for at least three more years as Saudi crews are trained.
Russian industry still poses a challenge to rotorcraft sales and has made inroads.
In 2018, the RJAF displayed its first Mil Mi-26T2 heavy-lift helicopter. It will receive a total of four to add additional capacity in areas such as troop transport.
Egypt has also acquired the Ka-52 Alligator and Iraq has taken on several Mi-28 Havoc attack helicopters.
Nevertheless, as recent orders have shown, western helicopters continue to dominate the region.

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