The UK’s Puma helicopter (pictured in the foreground) fleet is set to be replaced under the $1.3 billion New Medium Helicopter program (UK MoD)

BELFAST — The UK has finally launched the negotiation phase of its £1 billion ($1.3 billion) New Medium Helicopter (NMH) program that will culminate in three competitors submitting bids, a crucial step toward issuing a production contract in 2025.

James Cartlidge, UK Minister for Defence Procurement, officially kicked off the Invitation to Negotiate (ITN) stage at the International Military Helicopter conference in London today, with Airbus Helicopters UK, Leonardo Helicopters UK and Lockheed Martin UK all in the frame to secure a contract.

Those three companies “will now compile their [NMH] bids to be evaluated by the Ministry of Defence to determine the winning bidder,” said the MoD in a statement.

UK military procurement arm Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) will evaluate each bid “through 2025 when, subject to Government approvals, a contract award is anticipated,” added London.

The NMH acquisition calls for the replacement of Puma helicopters and a number of smaller rotary fleets like Bell 212, Bell 412 and Airbus AS365 Dauphins. Managing director for Airbus Helicopters UK, Lenny Brown, previously told Breaking Defense the UK had decided to reduce the total number of aircraft envisioned rom 44 to 35 due to funding issues, though the MoD later said there had been no changes to the “advertised requirement.”

Today’s statement does not stipulate how many aircraft the MoD is seeking, and officials did not respond to a request for comment from Breaking Defense. The ITN phase is expected to deliver, for the first time, a full breakdown of requirements and costs for industry. London has consistently said that export value will be prioritized when bids are assessed, alongside the standard considerations of local manufacturing and production.

The New Medium Helicopter programme has progressed to the next stage of development, Defence Minister @jcartlidgemp announced this morning.

The NMH will improve efficiency and operational flexibility for Defence operations. 🚁

Read more 👉

— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) February 27, 2024

The UK has still to confirm when the aircraft will enter service, despite the Puma fleet previously planned for retirement in 2025, but it noted that once the aircraft is operational, “it will provide the Armed Forces with a new medium lift aircraft capable of operating in all environments in support of a broad spectrum of Defence tasks, from warfighting to humanitarian efforts and operations around the world.”

Competitors have long been keen to stress how well their respective aircraft and production plans match up to London’s acquisition strategy.

Airbus Helicopters UK has pledged to stand up a H175M production line in Broughton, Wales, where it currently manufacturers A380 commercial airliner wings. The military version of the super medium class rotorcraft can accommodate 18 passengers, offers a range of 600 nautical miles, cruise speed up to 150kts and can support troop transport, delivery of special operations forces, utility, search and rescue, and medical evacuation missions, according to the manufacturer.

“It will provide exceptional value for money, with low through-life costs and require minimal training time for pilots due to its cockpit commonality with the Airbus helicopters already used to train all UK military pilots,” said an Airbus spokesperson in a statement.

The Airbus H175M helicopter is one of three aircraft in the running to secure a UK New Medium Helicopter (NMH) production contract, slated for 2025.

In a bid to address UK economic and social value considerations, Airbus launched a H175M “task force” in 2022, with British suppliers Babcock, Martin-Baker and Spirit AeroSystems, heading a list of key suppliers should the helicopter eventually be selected for production. Boeing UK has since joined that group to support maintenance training services.

Airbus’s offer to stand up a Britain-based helicopter production line, sits as a direct challenge to Leonardo, which has traditionally been the UK’s only onshore rotary base, operating from Yeovil, southern England.

Leonardo is pitching the AW149 helicopter, which can carry 16 fully equipped troops, has a range of 545 nautical miles and is designed to carry out battlefield support, troop transport, logistics support, threat suppression, Close Air Support (CAS), Command and Control (C2), Search and Rescue (SAR), Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) and maritime patrol operations, according to company literature [PDF].

The multirole aircraft has already secured export orders from Egypt, North Macedonia, Poland and Thailand while Leonardo plans on producing over 60 percent of the helicopter from Yeovil and across a wider “Team AW149 UK” supply chain, which covers more than 70 companies from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, if it goes on to secure the NMH contract.

“The majority of the AW149’s structural design was undertaken at Yeovil and the company has already made a multi-million pound investment in a new AW149 production line at the site, as well as platform-specific training for the company’s experienced helicopter engineers,” said a Leonardo spokesperson.

Leonardo’s AW149 has a healthy export track record having secured orders from Egypt, North Macedonia, Poland and Thailand (Polish Ministry of National Defence)

The company has also stressed that “an addressable market” in excess of 500 medium class helicopters could be targeted for further AW149 export success, exclusively from the UK. Previous export aircraft have been built at the company’s Verigate production line in Italy.

Meanwhile Lockheed Martin is offering the S-70M Black Hawk utility helicopter which will, as part of a teaming agreement, see England-based Standard Aero assemble the aircraft should it be selected by London to enter production.

“We welcome the publication of the Invitation to Negotiate for the New Medium Helicopter competition and will review its contents over the next few weeks,” said a company spokesperson. “We believe Black Hawk is the best solution for UK Defence and UK industry, delivering a 100 [percent] military helicopter used by and interoperable with 35 allied nations, technology transfer, decades of export potential and over 600 jobs to the UK.“

Upon launch of NMH “Team Black Hawk” last year, Lockheed Martin said “nearly” 40 percent of aircraft production and assembly would be Britain-based.

Lockheed Martin also owns Polish manufacturer PZL Mielec, which produces the S-70i export variant of the US Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk from Poland. The manufacturer expects production of the US Army aircraft to run to the 2070s, with 5,000 delivered, as of September 2023 and five million flight hours in combat conditions recorded.