A helicopter UAV is very handy for naval ships, and for armies who can’t always depend on runways. The USA’s RQ/MQ-8 Fire Scout Unmanned Aerial Vehicle has blazed a trail of firsts in this area, but its history is best described as “colorful.” The program was begun by the US Navy, canceled, adopted by the US Army, revived by the Navy, then canceled by the Army. Leaving it back in the hands of the US Navy. Though the Army is thinking about joining again, and the base platform is changing.
The question is, can the MQ-8 leverage its size, first-mover contract opportunity, and “good enough” performance into a secure future with the US Navy – and beyond? DID describes these new VTUAV platforms, clarifies the program’s structure and colorful history, lists all related contracts and events, and offers related research materials.
Latest updates[?]: Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) is under pressure from the military to complete the Initial Operational Test & Evaluation of its Hai Chien 2 anti-air missile by this year. The Navy wants to start limited production of the missile from March next year so that the Tuo Chiang Class corvettes can have an anti-air capability. Unfortunately for NCSIST, the institute has run into problems integrating the missile with air defense radar. To meet the deadline by next year, it has to start shipborne testing in the next few months. So far, the missile has only been fired at sea once in 2014. Another effort to have the missile fired from the Mk 41 VLS is also delayed as the indigenous Hsun Lien naval combat systems is behind schedule.
Despite China’s ominous military buildup across the strait, key weapons sales of P-3 maritime patrol aircraft, Patriot PAC-3 missiles, and diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan had been sabotaged by Taiwanese politics for years – in some cases, since 1997. The KMT party’s flip-flops and determined stalling tactics eventually created a crisis in US-Taiwan relations, which finally soured to the point that the USA refused a Taiwanese request for F-16C/D aircraft.
That seems to have brought things to a head. Most of the budget and political issues were eventually sorted out, and after a long delay, some major elements of Taiwan’s requested modernization program appear to be moving forward: P-3 maritime patrol aircraft, UH-60M helicopters, Patriot missile upgrades; and requests for AH-64D attack helicopters, E-2 Hawkeye AWACS planes, minehunting ships, and missiles for defense against aircraft, ships, and tanks. These are must-have capabilities when facing a Chinese government that has vowed to take the country by force, and which is building an extensive submarine fleet, a large array of ballistic missiles, an upgraded fighter fleet, and a number of amphibious-capable divisions. Chinese pressure continues to stall some of Taiwan’s most important upgrades, including diesel-electric submarines, and new American fighter jets. Meanwhile, other purchases from abroad continue.
Latest updates[?]: The US Army tapped Boeing with a $10.7 million Foreign Military Sale to Saudi Arabia. The deal provides for the integration and retrofit of 23 AH-6i aircraft with DVR, equipment stowage, and APKWS II capabilities. One bid was solicited with one bid received. AH-6i can be used to conduct light, precision, anti-armor, close combat attacks. The rotorcraft can also support reconnaissance, and combat search and rescue missions. The Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) is a combat-proven, laser-guided 70mm rocket system designed and manufactured by BAE Systems in collaboration with the US Government. The weapon system is currently deployed by the US Military Forces. Work will take place in Mesa, Arizona with an estimated completion date of March 30, 2022.
Hydras & Hellfires
The versatile Hydra 70mm rocket family is primed for a new lease on life, thanks to widespread programs aimed at converting these ubiquitous rockets into cheap laser-guided precision weapons. Conversion benefits include cost, use on both helicopters and fighters, more precision weapons per platform, low collateral damage, and the activation of large weapon stockpiles that couldn’t be used under strict rules of engagement.
Firms all over the world have grasped this opportunity, which explains why strong competition has emerged from all points of the compass. America’s “Advanced Precision-Kill Weapon System (APKWS)” is one of those efforts, but the road from obvious premise to working weapon has been slow. After numerous delays and false starts since its inception in 1996, an “APKWS-II” program finally entered System Design and Development (SDD) in 2006. In 2010, it entered low-rate production, and it was fielded to the front lines in 2012. That date will still put APKWS on the cutting edge of battlefield technology, as a leading player in a larger trend toward guided air-to-ground rockets.
It has been a great week for Textron subsidiary AAI. At the end of February, they made a big breakthrough in the US military market, as their Aerosonde-G UAV became 1 of 3 platforms eligible to compete for up to $847 million in US Navy and its allied rent-a-drone contracts. Less than a week later, the firm is walking away with a $600 million sole win of US Special Operations Command’s MEUAS-II UAV services contract, displacing MEUAS incumbent Boeing and its ScanEagle.
The Aerosonde UAV is AAI’s most likely offering for MEUAS-II, but that can’t be confirmed yet…
Latest updates[?]: Ukraine and Poland are to collaborate on helicopter production that ranges from undertaking modernization efforts, to designing and serial producing their own models for their armed forces. Announcing the new plan, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Stepan Kubiv said that his country could not undertake such efforts on its own and needed help from Polish industry as well as potentially other Western companies. The statement follows comments made in late 2016 by Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, who said Warsaw and Kiev are discussing plans to launch a joint production effort of helicopters that could be used by the militaries of Central and Eastern European allies.
Recent Russian aggression in the Ukraine has sharpened Poland’s awareness of its status as NATO’s new linchpin state, and an ambitious 10-year military Technical Modernization Program (TMP) is underway. The country’s open, rolling terrain from East to West is very friendly to cavalry warfare, which makes good attack helicopters a necessity. Poland’s current fleet of 29 late Soviet-era Mi-24D/Vs has served them well, but they need more and better machines. Unsurprisingly, the planned Kruk (“Raven”) attack helicopter replacement competition was one of the TMP projects targeted for acceleration in the wake of recent events.
Contracts and Key Events
April 27/17: Ukraine and Poland are to collaborate on helicopter production that ranges from undertaking modernization efforts, to designing and serial producing their own models for their armed forces. Announcing the new plan, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Stepan Kubiv said that his country could not undertake such efforts on its own and needed help from Polish industry as well as potentially other Western companies. The statement follows comments made in late 2016 by Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, who said Warsaw and Kiev are discussing plans to launch a joint production effort of helicopters that could be used by the militaries of Central and Eastern European allies.
March 7/17: Leonardo and Polish Armaments Group have signed a cooperation agreement on helicopter production for the Polish armed forces. The deal will facilitate further industrial collaboration on production, servicing and maintenance for various military rotorcraft. Leonardo is currently offering the AW139, AW101 and W-3PL models to Warsaw as part of several helicopter requirements by the defense ministry and if selected, PGZ will assist with producing components and other supporting systems in Poland.
February 22/17: Poland’s Defense Ministry has begun negotiations with three bidders for various helicopter mission requirements. Eight are being sought to fill an urgent need for special forces missions, while eight more are required to fill a 2019 naval requirement for anti-submarine warfare and maritime search and rescue operations. The urgent nature of the acquisitions will allow Warsaw to bypass certain lengthy procurement procedures and they are believed to be talking to Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo Helicopters and Sikorsky. Despite the apparent urgency, however, the government is still insisting on offset requirements, which must be an “integral part of the contract.”
February 14/17: Poland will purchase 16 new helicopters this year, half destined for the Navy and the rest to the country’s special forces. Two will be Sikorsky Black Hawks, with the remainder to be chosen from offers from Lockheed Martin, Leonardo and Airbus Helicopters. Delivery of the Black Hawks is expected for next month after being produced by Lockheed Martin’s Polish subsidiary PZL Mielec. The 16 aircraft will go toward the replacement of Poland’s Soviet-designed Mil Mi-8, Mi-14 and Mi-17 helicopters.
January 20/17: Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz has said that his government is considering a 2017 splurge on new military hardware. Macierewicz name-dropped Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky subsidiary, Leonardo, and somewhat surprisingly Airbus, as potential suppliers of 14 helicopters to the Polish army. While both Sikorsky and Leonardo have plants located in Poland, relations between Airbus and the ruling Law & Justice Party soured last year following the cancellation of a $3.2 billion deal to provide 50 H225M Caracals. The ministry has also proposed a plan to buy between 50-100 F-16s as well as three new submarines with contracts to be signed by either the end of the year or in early 2018.
November 8/16: Egypt and Russia have been dragged into the ongoing war of words surrounding Poland’s dropped Caracel helicopter deal with Airbus and France. Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz accused Egypt of reselling French-built Mistral amphibious assault ships initially intended for Russia to the Russian Navy for the princely sum of €1. Yes, one Euro. The comments, made during a parliamentary session, outraged France, who abandoned the Russian sale under pressure from NATO allies. However Macierewicz’s remarks pale in comparison to his deputy who dismissively said that the Poles had taught the French “to eat with a fork a couple of centuries ago” after France revoked Poland’s invitation to the Euronaval 2016 defense expo in Paris.
November 1/16: Polish prosecutors are to investigate the recently scrapped Caracel military helicopter deal with Airbus to see if the move circumvented Polish law or was linked to corruption. Speaking to local media, prosecutor Michal Dziekanski said “this will be a complicated, comprehensive investigation, encompassing a very large set of evidence.” Tomasz Siemoniak, the defense minister responsible for originally brokering the deal during the previous administration, called the Airbus tender “fair and transparent” and said it was canceled by his rivals for political reasons.
FY 2015 – 2016
October 27/16: Airbus will seek compensation from Poland following the government’s shooting down of the previous administration’s 50-unit order for H225M multirole helicopters. Following four years of work on the tender, the company’s chief financial officer Harald Wilhelm said the group “had spent years trusting that it was in a fair competition” and that it would now “seek remedies” from Warsaw. Wilhelm added that the deal “would have committed us to build a competitive aerospace industry in Poland.”
October 20/16: Negotiations are underway between Poland and Ukraine to launch a joint production effort of helicopters that could be used by the militaries of Central and Eastern European allies. But while Poland is currently in the midst of two increasingly complicated helicopter tenders, Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz said any joint effort would most likely be on a new model “based on the industrial potential of both countries. We know that the Ukrainians make excellent engines, produced by Motor Sich.” Based in southeastern Ukraine, Motor Sich has supplied engines for a variety of Ukrainian and Russian aircraft including the Antonov An-8 and An-10, the Yakovlev Yak-40 and Yak-42, and the Mil Mi-8MT, Mi-14 and Mi-171.
October 12/16: Airbus struck back at the Polish government yesterday following the dropping of a multi-billion Caracel helicopter deal. In an open letter to the Prime Minister, the Aerospace giant accused the government of shifting the goalposts as Airbus competed with US and Italian rivals, and attempting to contravene European Union regulations. Speaking in a separate email, Airbus Group Chief Executive Tom Enders said “never have we been treated by any government customer the way this government has treated us.” Industry sources estimate Airbus’ cost of running the helicopter sales campaign at several tens of millions of euros.
October 11/16: France has reacted angrily to Poland dropping a multi-billion helicopter deal with Airbus, warning that it would review defense cooperation with its NATO ally and cancelling a presidential visit to Warsaw. Winning support as a populist, right-wing, eurosceptics, the ruling Law & Justice party (PiS) said they would rather see the deal awarded to a company that could build the helicopters locally. Polish media reports that Warsaw has already begun negotiations with Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky, manufacturer of locally-produced Black Hawk helicopters that could be purchased by the Polish army as soon as this year.
October 8/15: Poland has progressed its competition to replace the country’s fleet of Mil Mi-24 attack helicopters, with talks scheduled to soon begin with the four bidders. The ‘Kruk’ (‘Raven’) competition has attracted bids from Airbus with the EC665 Tiger; Bell Helicopters with the AH-1Z Cobra; Boeing with the AH-64 Apache and Turkish Aerospace Industries with the T129 ATAK. Despite the Polish Defence Ministry announcing in April that a winner is due for selection by the end of the year, these talks are scheduled to last one week per company, concluding by the end of November and a contract is now expected in the latter half of 2017.
April 22/15: In addition to the Patriot announcement, Poland has selected the Airbus H225M to fulfill its tri-service helicopter requirement. 50 of the Airbus helicopters will replace the current 40-strong fleet of Mil Mi-17s; a figure revised down from the original requirement for 70 units. The H225M beat out AgustaWestland’s AW149 and Sikorsky’s S-70i Black Hawk and S-70B Seahawk, with the winning helicopter set to undergo checks this May and June to verify its capabilities against Poland’s requirement set. The Eastern European state is also looking to upgrade its attack helicopter fleet. Combined with the Patriot program, the helicopter procurement will account for approximately a quarter of Poland’s eight-year defense modernization budget.
Aug 5/14: The Polish defence ministry has said that it is considering bids from 10 manufacturers under the Kruk competition. They wouldn’t name names, saying only that it involved “foreign and domestic companies offering both ready-made helicopters and components for assembly.”
The difference between ready-made and assembly kits is a bidder’s choice, and the kits option is often used to comply with local industrial offset rules. The harder question is how to get to 10 manufacturers, given the limited number of attack helicopter options out there.
Obvious leaders include Airbus (EC665 Tiger HAD), AW/TAI (T129 ATAK), Bell Helicopter (AH-1Z) and Boeing (AH-64E). South Africa’s Denel offers the Rooivalk, which hasn’t been exported but has competed elsewhere. Sikorsky is working very hard to win Poland’s utility helicopter competition with the S-70i, which is the focus of that company’s 2nd largest helicopter plant. Their Battlehawk add-on kit could offer Poland a single-type force that’s able to perform both utility and attack roles. That’s 6 possible competitors; beyond this list, one must either stretch the boundaries of the term “attack helicopter” to incorporate armed scouts, or entertain far less likely options. Russian Helicopters’ Ka-52 and Mi-28 are absolute non-starters, but there are rumors that Poland’s MRO and upgrade shop WZL-2 S.A. has bid, and that Israel’s IAI and RAFAEL also responded. Sources: Polskie Radio, “10 bidders to modernize Poland’s combat helicopter fleet”.
July 8/14: Kruk program launched, deadline to respond to the RFI is Aug 1/14. The program was originally supposed to launch a tender in 2018, with deliveries beginning in 2020, but the tender has now been moved up to 2015. Quantities may also be changing: the program’s original goal was 32 helicopters, but current reports indicate that Poland may increase that to 40.
In the mean time, Phase 1 involves setting technical and operational requirements, following market research. Hence the RFI. Next comes a more detailed feasibility study and staffing requirements based on the responses, followed by the formal RFP in 2015. Sources: Polish MON, “Rusza program smiglowcow uderzeniowych” | Emirates 24/7 News, “Poland launches tender for assault helicopters” | Flightglobal, “Poland launches attack helicopter acquisition” | IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, “Poland starts ‘Kruk’ attack helicopter acquisition programme”.
Latest updates[?]: Australia has received the country's seventh C-17A transporter, the first of two aircraft ordered in April to complement the six already in service. The second of the pair is expected by the end of the year, with the aircraft all operated by the Royal Australian Air Force's 36 Squadron in Queensland.
C-17 #1 Arrives
In March 2006, the Australian government announced that the Australian Defence Forces would acquire up to 4 new Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlift planes and associated equipment for A$ 2 billion ($1.49 billion then conversion). Since that first contract, RAAF C-17As have been rolling off the assembly line, arriving on or ahead of schedule, and flying the (un)friendly skies to support Australia’s military and humanitarian efforts around the globe. The first plane arrived in Australia in December 2006, and the 4th plane arrived in March 2008.
Even that didn’t mean C-17 expenses were done. Ongoing maintenance, training facilities, and more must still be paid for, and Australia liked the Globemasters so much that it decided to buy more. In April 2011, Australia upped their order to 5 aircraft, a June 2012 order made it 6, and an order announced in October 2014 will make 8. The fleet may even rise to 10, tying Australia with India as the globe’s 2nd largest C-17 fleet. DID chronicles the entire process, and its associated contracts…
In fall 2012, the Canadian government began planning in earnest to replace its current fleet of Coast Guard helicopters: 14 MBB Bo-105s and 3 Bell 206L LongRangers at the light end, supported by 6 Bell 212 twin-Hueys. The replacement buy has been structured as 2 competitions: one for 16 light helicopters, and one for 4-8 ‘medium’ helicopters. A 3rd buy may add 2-3 different helicopters for use aboard Canada’s new Icebreaker after 2017.
Unfortunately, the competition has followed the same template as almost every major Canadian defense buy over the last decade: a show of competition, masking a pre-selected winner. That has become a political issue in Canada, now that the government has announced its intent to sole-source a light helicopter award worth up to C$ 1 billion over 20 years.
Australia’s 25-year, A$ 600 million Project AIR 9000 Phase 7 – Helicopter Aircrew Training System (HATS) will replace the Navy’s Airbus AS350BA Ecureuils, and the Army’s Bell 206-B1 Kiowa fleet, with 15 new Airbus EC135 T2+ helicopters. The new helicopters use twin 634shp Turbomeca Arrius 2B2 engines, and have improved maximum takeoff weight compared to earlier EC135 models. They will provide basic training before pilots graduate to Australia’s S-70, MH-60R, MRH-90, or CH-47 squadrons. The contract also includes flight simulators, and a training ship with a landing deck for Navy training. The team includes Boeing Australia, Thales Australia, Airbus, and Turbomeca.
African countries need counter-insurgency and surveillance aircraft, but they aren’t about to buy top-end gear like an AC-130. Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano turboprop trainer and light attack aircraft is about the upper end – a few African countries have purchased them, and the USA’s LAS program offers them through an intermediary. Lower-end alternatives involve widely-used and easy to maintain light planes like the Textron Cessna C-208Bs fielded by Iraq and Lebanon, AirTractor’s AT-802Us, etc. A recent Pentagon contract shows that the low-end idea is catching on.
The Ship to Shore Connector (SSC) hovercraft program aims to build on the USA’s LCAC hovercraft experience, and retain the US Navy’s unparalleled transport options from ship to shore and beyond. LCACs launch from inside the well deck of an amphibious warship, then travel the waves at high speed, run right through the surf zone near the beach, and stop at a suitable place on land. Their cargo walks or rolls off. The LCAC(Landing Craft, Air Cushion) returns to the surf to pick up more. Rinse. Agitate. Repeat.
These air-cushioned landing craft are much more capable than the conventional flat-bottomed landing boats used by other countries, but that capability comes at a price. LCACs were expensive to buy, suffered from corrosion and maintenance issues, and remain quite expensive to operate and maintain after many years in service. The other problem is that tanks and other vehicles have gotten heavier, so carrying equipment like the Marines’ latest M1 Abrams can push current LCACs to their capacity limits.
Countries like France are designing fast catamaran landing craft for over-the-horizon delivery at a lower price point, and modern hovercraft offer new options of their own. The US Navy looked at the possibilities, then decided to ask for an upgraded version of the current LCACs. SSC was born, and in 2012 it finally moved into system development.