The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 12/3/20

 In Weekly Wire
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NATO Helicopters Strike Back

Alix Leboulanger, Research Associate

Recent weeks have been quite positive on the rotor wing front, with Germany confirming an order of 31 new NH90 NATO Frigate Helicopter (NHF) for €2.7 billion ($3.6 billion). These new helicopters, dubbed Sea Tiger to differentiate them from the NH90 NHF Sea Lion due to different mission system configurations, will replace the 21 aging Mk88 Westland Sea Lynx for anti-submarine warfare operations. The contract had been previously announced in 2019, however endorsement from the Bundestag was pending. With the German Parliament now giving the greenlight, the Sea Tigers should start to be delivered by 2025 onward.

This is a positive outcome for the NH90 program after numerous and tumultuous development roadblocks that translated into skyrocketing cost overruns. Nevertheless, the NH90 program remains a successful example of multilateral collaboration, unlike other stalled joint programs (such as the MALE UAS or European mobility and lift aircraft) that are struggling to break even and find more export markets.

Moreover, the recent NATO announcement to develop a future heavy lift helicopter, branded the Next Generation Helicopter Capabilities (NGRC), to replace the aging fleets of Pumas, Merlins, H-60s, and Caracals across Europe, is another acknowledgement of the NH90’s success. Among the participating members, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, and the UK are the prominent figures, similar to the NH90 program, with the exception of the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Scandinavian countries. This is largely due the presence of European champions such as Airbus Helicopters and Leonardo Helicopters, who are also part of the NH90 Industries consortium.

The UK participation is worth mentioning at this early stage of the program, especially as the country continues to grapple with Brexit (and potentially ending up with no deal, also known as a “hard” Brexit). The NATO structure is more flexible and politically less sensitive than the EDA or even PESCO, enabling the UK to still capitalize on future helicopter investments despite diverging political configurations. The UK’s interest could be explained mainly by two key factors:

  • Unlike the NH90, there is a clear capability gap across Europe when it comes to future heavy utility helicopters. With Italy, the UK has a dominant fleet of Merlins and need to start envisioning future plans.
  • The US is currently developing their future multirole helicopter (under the FLARA program) to replace their current fleet of UH-60s by 2040, and it will be critical for the UK to retain domestically the expertise in this helicopter segment to avoid reliance on American and/or continental Europe offer.

Finally, the new program could encompass much more than a simple helicopter, but improvements at the mission systems level, networked architecture, and interoperability with unmanned systems are anticipated.

The next NGRC milestone is expected to be around 2022 for a Memorandum of Understanding between key participating members and agree on a conceptual and development roadmap, with production hopefully started by 2030 and first deliveries by 2035. This project could put in jeopardy near term procurement of heavy lift helicopters across Europe and lead instead to life extension programs or leasing contracts until the next generation of heavy helicopters get into service. But this is an audacious bet on another collaborative project.

Philippines

Last week, France’s Naval Group announced plans to open a new office in downtown Manila in hopes of securing a lucrative diesel-electric submarine contract from the Philippines Navy. The move reflects the Philippines’ desire to refocus on naval force projection as well as Naval Group’s commitment to assuming the prime contractor role. Should Naval Group secure the contract, it would likely construct two Scorpene-class submarines at a total cost of approximately $1.5 billion. The relatively low cost of the Scorpene-class would allow the Philippines to continue devoting significant resources to counterinsurgency operations, which President Rodrigo Duterte has prioritized throughout his tenure, while keeping pace with regional allies who are rapidly developing submarine capabilities to counter Chinese maritime influence. It remains unclear when the Philippine Department of National Defense will make a final award, as the government has already delayed several major modernization efforts due to budget constraints brought upon by the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Italy

On December 2, Italy announced its intentions to procure up to eight Gulfstream G-550 based ISTAR platforms. Funding of €1.23 billion had been listed in the defense budget released in October 2020, with the Italian Ministry of Defense now confirming the number of platforms upon submitting its plan to the parliamentary defense commission for approval. The procurement seeks to enhance Italy’s SIGNINT capabilities in the Mediterranean.

Croatia

After over a year of negotiations, on December 1 the Defense Security Cooperation Agency approved a potential $757 million sale of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and TOW missiles to Croatia. The deal is partially funded by the US European Recapitalization Incentive Program (ERIP) and would see Croatia acquire 76 M2A2 Bradleys and 1,735 TOW missiles to begin replacing the country’s Yugoslav-era BVP M-80s.

The M2A2 Bradleys will be refurbished and modernized from their current Operation Desert Storm standard by BAE Systems in York, PA for between $2-5 million per vehicle. Among these upgrades will be an exportable variant of the Commander’s Independent Viewer. It is believed that 60 of these vehicles will be fielded to a heavy infantry battalion, while the remaining 16 vehicles will be held in reserve as attritional spares. This is a decrease of eight spares over what Croatia originally sought.

The Bradleys would then be able to draw upon a stockpile of 1,735 TOW missiles, the majority of which (1,103) would be the tandem warhead TOW-2A variant, 100 would be TOW-2B top-attack variants, and 500 would be the bunker buster variant. This sale also represents several notable firsts, as it the first sale of Bradley Fighting Vehicles to a NATO country and it is the first large sale enabled by the US’s ERIP program.

(To read more about Avascent’s perspective on the European Recapitalization Incentive Program, check out our white papers Defense Firms Angle for Eastern Europe and  Croatian Military Defence Modernisation Agenda)

Japan

Kongsberg has signed a third contract with Japan for Joint Strike Missiles, which can strike both land targets and surface ships. This most recent contract is worth $92.8 million. The first contract worth $65.6 million was signed in March 2019, and the second contract worth $50.9 million was signed in November 2019. Japan has been investing in enhancing its anti-ship capability, with a particular mind towards extending range. The supersonic ASM-3 is having its range extended to about 400km, while the older Type 12 missiles have been developed into the newer Type 17, also with 400km range. Japan also plans to acquire the LRASM in the future, with a range of at least 500km. Although the JSM does not have such range, it makes up for this through stealthiness. The JSM is the only anti-ship missile that the F-35 can carry internally. Aside from anti-shipping capability, the JSM’s land-attack function represents increased willingness in Japan to consider striking enemy land targets. Such capability would have been out of the question even a decade ago, but has now been taken more seriously especially as North Korean ballistic missiles continue to grow in number and sophistication.

Brazil

On December 1, the US Department of State approved a potential sale of torpedo conversion kits to Brazil. Specifically, the sale cover 22 MK 54 conversion kits, which will allow the Brazilian military to convert Mk46 Mod 5 A(S) torpedoes to MK 54 Mod 0 lightweight torpedoes. The value of the sale is $70 million. Brazil intends to use these torpedoes in conjunction with its surface vessels and its fleet of S-70B Seahawk aircraft. The goal of the sale is to help Brazil enhance its ability to protect its territorial waters. Additionally, the sale is not yet final, and details could change before a contract is signed.

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