Of Helicopters and High Costs

The NH90 was supposed to become the gold-standard of military transport helicopters, utilising composite structures and high-tech avionics to provide a modern workhorse for the airlift needs in a host of European countries.

Almost immediately the grand vision hit rough waters, with significant teething troubles and delays. A chapter in itself was the joint Nordic helicopter program, which eventually ended up with the different countries all going more or less their own ways. In the end, Denmark and ordered the larger AW101 (ex-EH101), Norway got both the AW101 and the NH90 NFH (naval version), while Finland ordered the NH90 TTH and Sweden opted for two modified versions of the NH90, designated HKP 14E and 14F locally.

Choppers
Swedish HKP 14E visiting Kuopio, Finland, in 2016. Source: Own picture

In addition to the “baseline” teething troubles experienced by the project as a whole, the Swedes in a highly-publicised move decided that they wanted a higher cabin. This lead to a significant redesign, which brought added costs and delays. In the background also loomed persistent rumors that the evaluation made by the Swedish Defence Forces had been won by another contender (the Sikorsky S-92), and that the NH90 had been bought due to political considerations.

While the Finnish helicopter program also suffered delays, at one point forcing the once-retired Mi-8’s back into service, the Finnish Army rather quickly regained their footing. In part thanks to the delays, Patria was negotiated to take a bigger role in the overhaul of not only the Finnish but also of foreign helicopters, and by not requiring all documentation and systems to be fully operational immediately, the Army was able to phase the NH90-fleet into use at a relatively fast pace (still years late compared to the original plan). One of the breakthrough moments was the major exercise Pyörremyrsky 2011, which saw a formation of 9 helicopters perform an airlift operations. A first, also by international standards.

In the meantime Sweden was still suffering from issues with regards to the localisation, and the attitude towards incomplete or temporary paperwork was not as forgiving. To make matters more urgent, like in Finland, Sweden was also in the process of retiring their earlier helicopters. In this case, the retirement of the Hkp 10B (Super Puma) meant that the forces in Afghanistan would be without a MEDEVAC helicopter for the foreseeable future, something which was deemed unacceptable. To solve the issue an urgent order for 15 UH-60M Blackhawk was placed in 2011 as a stop-gap solution. Influenced by the troublesome HKP 14 program, the helicopters were ordered according to US standards, with one of the chief programme executives being rumoured to have summed up the order with “I don’t care if it reads ‘US ARMY’ on their sides, just get them here!”.

20150319_alekar04_Hkp16_last_129.jpg
Swedish HKP 16 (UH-60M Blackhawk) in joint operations with the ground elements of NBG 15. In an ironic twist, the Finnish detachment to the battle group was a NH90 MEDEVAC unit. Source: Alexander Karlsson/Försvarsmakten

The new Blackhawks provided stellar service in Afghanistan, and once the operation winded down they were integrated into the Swedish Air Force’s Helicopter Wing as part of the medium lift capability of the defence forces. By all accounts the helicopters, locally designated HKP 16, have performed well, and the deal is a prime example of something acquired outside of original plans quickly finding its place in the greater scheme of things. At the same time the transport version HKP 14E was slowly getting introduced into service, but still the critique didn’t let up. The marine version HKP 14F (not to be confused with the international naval version NH90 NFH) was being delayed further until 2015, and entered service both without any kind of anti-submarine torpedo as well as without a working data link to relay information to and from other units.

NH 90 on show
Finnish NH90 during an aerial display in Vaasa in early 2018. Source: Own picture

The latest blow came when it was clear that the Air Force had looked into mothballing all nine HKP 14E, due to the extremely high operating costs, over 19,000 EUR per flight hour. At the heart of the issue lies accounting. The majority of the costs does not come from fuel, but from fixed costs such as yearly overhauls. The high cost means that the Air Force prefer to use the Blackhawks whenever possible, as they sport a flight hour cost one-fifth of that of the HKP 14 . This in turns leads to even lower usage for the HKP 14, further pushing up the cost per hour. To make matters worse, there is speculation that part of the fixed costs are depreciation, i.e. accounting for the fact that the value of the helicopter diminishes per year. A handy tool when it comes to calculating investments in regular companies, a not-so-handy one when it comes to defence budgets.

This is in stark contrast to the Finnish numbers, where the flight hour cost is on a steady downwards trajectory. For 2017 the budgeted flight hour cost was 15,900 EUR, while for 2018 it is down in the neighborhood of around 10,000 EUR. This was confirmed by colonel Jaro Kesänen, Commanding Officer of Utti Jaeger Regiment which is home to the Helicopter Battalion. Speaking as a private citizen, Kesänen noted in a non-formal Twitter exchange that the NH90 is an appreciated asset in the Finnish Defence Forces and that the flight hour cost is within the range envisioned when the helicopters were acquired. Notable is that in the case of Finland the NH90 is the sole transport helicopter available to the Defence Forces (though a limited number of Border Guard helicopters can also be called upon by the authorities), and the caveat should be made that rarely does the Finnish Defence Forces openly voice negative opinions about their own systems.

In the last weeks two major reports on the future of the Swedish Defence Forces have been released. The first was SOU 2018:7 which looked at the long-term needs for new equipment to the Swedish Defence Forces (also known as “Wahlbergs review”). The review looked into mothballing either all HKP 14 or only the army cooperation HKP 14E to make budgetary saving. The conclusions presented was that few to none savings would be made if the HKP 14E was retired, and in case all HKP 14 were retired this would have too large negative effects in the maritime domain. The second report was the Defence Forces’ outlook at how to expand up until 2035 (known as PerP). The report only deals with the Helicopter Wing in passing, and does not mention individual systems. What it does note is identify the need to grow the organisation and its capabilities, in part due to the need for airmobile units. As such, the career of the HKP 14 seems set to continue in the Swedish Defence Forces. Time will tell if it will grow into a beautiful swan, or whether it is destined to stay the ugly duckling of the Helicopter Wing.

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