Published on January 30th, 2023 | by Gabriel Desmond0
Europe’s NH90 – Naval and Battlefield Helicopter.
On 25th November 2022 three Royal Netherlands Navy warships visited the Port of Cork. The Frigate HNLMS De Zeven Provincien F802 and patrol ship HNLMS Groningen P843 berthed upriver at Marino Point and Cork City while the big support ship Karel Doorman A833 tied up at Cobh for its second visit since October 2021
Dutch warships are equipped to carry the NH90 NFH naval helicopter but none were embarked on arrival. However, two NH90s flew fast and low from sea into Cork Harbour, and performed a close flyby of the Karel Doorman at Cobh before dramatically breaking formation and landing in turn on the large flight deck. The ships returned to sea on 29 November.
This visit prompted your correspondent to review the troubled development of the NH90. It was conceived as a new NATO military helicopter with naval and battlefield versions featuring an all-composite structure and entirely fly-by-wire controls designed and built by a French / German / Italian / Dutch consortium of Airbus, Leonardo and Fokker Aerostructures called NHIndustries (NHI). Its maiden flight was in 1995 and the first delivery was to the German Army in late 2006. These can carry 20 equipped troops. The naval version entered service with the Dutch Navy in 2010.
The NH90 is produced at sites in Italy, France and Germany while the Australian and Nordic orders had a final assembly at Brisbane in Australia and Halli in Finland. Orders have totalled over 500 from the military of 14 countries. The French, German and Italian military will receive the most – nearly 300 in total.
The battlefield version is the NH90 TTH – Tactical Transport Helicopter which is used for trooping including repelling of troops while hovering and carriage of military equipment internally or slung externally. The four-axis autopilot eases pilot workload while the composite airframe gives a high level of crashworthiness and lower weight.
The NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter) is in service with the navies France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands who have between them ordered over 100. This shipborne version is used for anti-submarine and anti-surface roles as well as search and rescue (SAR) and vertical replenishment at sea (VERTREP). With automatic blade folding and emergency floatation equipment, it can operate from warships day or night, in bad weather and during severe ship motion. The French designation is NFH Caïman and the German Navy calls it the NH90 Sea Lion, to be augmented by an advanced version dubbed Sea Tiger.
The NH90 has had a chequered record in military service with some nations. They cite dissatisfaction with the helicopter and with the in-service support from the manufacturers. In early use at sea, the Netherlands Navy reported problems with the design and materials used and especially corrosion from salt water in maritime operations.
The Australian Army who ordered a total of 47 NH90s complained of long-delayed progress to full operational status and the helicopter’s inability to provide gun cover while troops make their exit.
Thirty NH90s for Sweden and Finland had their final assembly by Patria in Finland. Sweden found the original internal headroom too low and ordered 18 of a High Cabin version for troop and naval use. However, the lack of a gun position while landing troops and other problems has led to their early phasing out of the type. Sweden and Australia will likely replace it with versions of the Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk and naval SH-60R Seahawk.
Norway ordered 14 NH90s for their navy and coast guard for delivery from 2005. In June 2022 Norway eventually cancelled their entire order on grounds that the contract had not been met due to delivery delays of years and low availability caused by a lack of spare parts. This last problem has been encountered by many operators. All delivered Norwegian NH90s were taken out of service with immediate effect. NHI say this position is legally groundless.
Other countries which have ordered the NH90 include Belgium, Greece, New Zealand, Oman, Qatar and Spain. Despite the reputational problems outlined above the NH90 will likely continue in production and military service as it is the biggest project of its kind in Europe and of huge industrial importance to the producing countries. NHI are striving to address the issues highlighted by users. Machine gun self-protection from a new rear window while troops exit from the side doors is now available. In June 2022 a NATO agency and NHI signed a new contract to improve the supply of spare parts and product support to French and German forces. This service would be available to all NH90 operators.
So we can probably expect to see further visits by the NH90 to Ireland in future years.