Norway terminates NH90 helicopter program, with few good options for replacement


An NH90 helicopter from the Royal Netherlands navy frigate HNLMS Van Speijk (F 828) takes off from the flight deck of the guided-missile destroyer USS Gridley (DDG 101) on Sept. 16, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Cameron Stoner)

PARIS: Norway’s surprise announcement Friday that it will terminate a 20-year contract for 14 NH90 helicopters is poised to kick off a legal battle between Oslo and European conglomerate NHIndustries.

Norway says delays, errors and excessive maintenance of its fleet of NH90 helicopters led to the “serious decision” to terminate the contract. It will return the 13 helicopters it has received so far, and is demanding a refund from the manufacturer of nearly 5 billion kroner ($525 million).

The decision means that Norwegian flight operations with the twin-engine NH90 will be discontinued “and any planned future missions will be cancelled,” the Defense Ministry announced.

“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,” Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram, who has held the position for less than two months, said in a statement. He later told media that “we have undertaken a thorough evaluation of whether it’s possible to get any real operative use out of the NH90s. The conclusion is negative. From a delivery time perspective, investment in alternative helicopter capacity would probably be more reasonable.”

The Defense Ministry is concerned that “as of today, only eight have been delivered in a fully operational configuration. The fleet is currently required to provide 3,900 flight hours annually but in recent years it has averaged only about 700 hours.”

NHIndustries retorted in a statement that it “considers this termination to be legally groundless”. The company said it “is extremely disappointed by the decision taken by the Norwegian Ministry of Defense and refutes the allegations being made against the NH90 as well as against the Company.” It adds that “NHIndustries was not offered the possibility to discuss the latest proposal made to improve the availability of the NH90 in Norway and to address the specific Norwegian requirements.”

Norway first agreed to procure the helicopters in 2001, with an eye on coast guard and anti-submarine duties. The original contract called for all 14 to be delivered by the end of 2008, but according to State broadcaster NRK, the first NH90 helicopter was not delivered until 2011 and wasn’t operational before 2017.

More than 440 NH90s have been delivered to 14 countries. But in December 2021 Australia announced it planned an early retirement for its fleet of 47 NH90s, which only entered service in 2014, blaming the “unreliability” and cost of the helicopter.

Meanwhile “Norway continues to have a requirement for maritime helicopters, and it is therefore essential that we quickly begin preparations to fill the capability gap left by the NH90. We 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,” said Gram.

NRK reported on Friday the government is considering leasing other helicopters, possibly from NATO allies. Gram said that no other existing helicopters would match all the capacities of the NH90, meaning Norway will have to make choices about priorities.

If they opt for a European replacement the AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat could fit the bill, as it’s small enough to fit on Norwegian frigates, whereas the AW101 (also known as the Merlin), which Norway already operates for SAR missions, is too large. A US option could be the MH-60R Romeo made by Sikorsky, which is about the right size but it can only carry a maximum of nine people compared to the 23 the NH90 can carry. Its sling capacity is also considerably lower at 6,000lbs (2,700kg) compared to the 8,800lbs (4,000kg) of the NH90.

The head of Norway’s Defense Material Agency, Gro Jære, said “we have made repeated attempts at resolving the problems related to the NH90 in cooperation with NHI, but more than 20 years after the contract was signed, we still don’t have helicopters capable of performing the missions for which they were bought, and without NHI being able to present us with any realistic solutions.” So the Agency “will now begin preparations to return the helicopters along with any spares and equipment received.”

But NHIndustries says it has “been absolutely committed to addressing the concerns previously expressed” and had “brought the appropriate and tailored solutions to the table to meet the specific and unique Norwegian requirements.”

NH90 Industries, based in Aix-en-Provence, France is a consortium of Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo Helicopters and Fokker Aerostructures. It was specifically established in 1992 to be the NATO Helicopter Management Agency’s prime contractor for the design, development industrialisation, production and logistic support for the NH90 helicopters

Some Norwegian military officers and defense employees claim the NH90s problems cannot only be blamed on the manufacturer. Torbjørn Bongo, leader of a federation representing military officers (Norges Offisers- og Spesialistforbund), told NRK that a lack of coordination among various agencies within the Norwegian defense department and ministry has also created operational problems. “We haven’t done our part of the job well enough” in organizing or coordinating, he said, adding that his organization was not given an opportunity to comment on the helicopters.

“We have lots of various players in the picture,” Bongo told NRK. “You can’t expect, for example, to have reserve parts ready if no one has ordered them or has authority to pay for them.” He thinks “internal problems” within the defense department have contributed to the current situation and that the helicopters have finally begun to function. “I’m critical that we haven’t had a chance to put that forward to the government.”

His comments appear to confirm statements made in 2018 by Norway’s state auditor general’s office putting some responsibility for the problems on the defense department. “The supplier has a great deal of responsibility for the delays, but the Defense Ministry, the Defense Department (the administrative arm) and Defense Material haven’t followed up the acquisition well enough.”

NH Industries says “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.”

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