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!”.

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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.

Tour de Sky 2016 -Return of the ‘Balalaika’

This year’s main flying event in Finland has just been held in the form of Tour de Sky at Kuopio-Rissala, a joint civilian and military airfield. In the later form, it is home to half of Finland’s fast jets as the legendary 31 Fighter Squadron resides there.

LanceR

Bearing the traditions of the wartime 24 squadron and their Brewsters, post-war the squadron operated the MiG-21 in the F-13 and Bis variants for several decades up until they were withdrawn from Finnish service in 1998. This year the MiG returned in style, with two Romanian MiG-21 LanceR C being present (together with a supporting Alenia G.222), one of which performed a very spirited flying display. The LanceR C was an upgrade program launched by Romanian Aerostar and Israeli avionics company ELBIT, and included amongst other things fitting the aircraft with a modern multimode radar in the form of ELBIT’s EL/M-2032, installing two multi-function displays in the cockpit, and clearing the aircraft for the carriage of new short-range missiles such as Python 3, Magic 2, and R-73. Still, the program was completed in 2002, so even with the upgrades the aircraft is on the verge of obsolescence. However, considering that the fighter first flew sixty years ago, it is hard not to be impressed by its longevity. Looking at the lifespan and capabilities upgrade of the LanceR compared to the original MiG-21F is also sobering when considering that today’s new fighters will have a lifespan at least as long, with all the changes that entails.

LanceR II

Gripen

Saab’s ‘legacy’ Gripen was well-represented as usual, with two 39C (solo display plane and backup), as well as a 39D at static display opposite one of the Eurofighters. The 39D sported an impressive array of inert display weapons, including the imposing Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missile. Also interesting was a scale model of the 39E in Finnish colours which Saab had mounted on the wall next to the entrance to their Skybar. As kindly pointed out by their representatives, what was featured on the model’s inner wing station was decidedly not a Taurus…

JASSMed

Rafale C

Dassault was heavily present throughout the weekend, as, despite not bringing an aircraft, they brought a serious amount of brightly orange baseball caps, whit my guess being these easily outnumbered the total amount of caps handed away by all four other HX-hopefuls together. There will be more info on the Rafale with regards to the HX in a later post (as will be the case for Lockheed-Martin’s offering as well).

Hornet

The solo-Hornet was another crowd-pleaser, with the wet conditions providing for an impressive amount of vapour during its hard turns. While the IOC for HX might still seem far away, there isn’t too many air shows left before the F/A-18 will be relegated to second place.

OH-HVP

The first of the Finnish Border Guards new AS332L1e Super Puma helicopters demonstrating the Bambi-bucket.

TRD

The Eurofighter Typhoon returned to Finland for what is only their second visit here so far. The unremarkable looking pod on the wingtip actually holds, amongst other things, two Towed Radar Decoys, which can be streamed after the aircraft to fool radar-seeking missiles. Contrary to my first guess, the system is actually robust enough that deploying them does not incur any kind of restrictions to the aircrafts flight envelope. The deployment of these can be controlled either manually or automatically by the integrated DASS EW-system.

Choppers

The Swedish Hkp 14 next to its Finnish cousin the NH 90 TTH.

MC-130J

The weather…

 

FIN Helicopter Unit

Sweden is currently the framework nation for the European Union’s rapid reaction forces’ Nordic Battle Group 15 (NBG15). As the battlegroup is a prioritized project in Sweden, symbolizing the “new” generation of security policy, wherein the defence forces were to be employed largely for different humanitarian tasks abroad, the fact that the battlegroups have never been activated for a “proper” mission is something of an embarrassment for certain parts of the political spectrum there. As such, there are now persistent rumors that Sweden is pushing for sending the forces abroad, preferably to some suitable African conflict. The fact that South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Libya have all been mentioned, underlines two important facts, namely that there have never been any shortage of “suitable conflicts” for the battlegroups, and that for the current political campaign the priority seems to be on getting to employ the battlegroup, rather than having started by identifying a proper need, and then activating the battlegroup to fill this need.

On the internet, the debate has been raging on in Swedish security and foreign policy circles on both twitter and blogs, with Patrik Oksanen (who also have included selected tweets by others), former FM Carl Bildt, Johan Wiktorin, and Reservofficer, all posting well written analyses of the situation. I will here focus on lifting the issue of possible Finnish participation.

NBG15 OOB
Order of Battle for NBG15. Source: Swedish Defence Forces.

When looking at the order of battle for NBG15 as a whole, it is clear that Finland is supplying a rather small but specialized piece of the puzzle, in the form of the unimaginatively named FIN Helicopter Unit, part of the Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW). This consists of four NH90 tactical transport helicopters with medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) as their main task, together with a maintenance and support organization. In total it consists of four helicopter, 13 ground vehicles, and slightly fewer than 70 servicemen.

FIN chopper unit
Composition of FIN Helicopter Unit. Note that the Finnish Defence Force gives total manpower at around 70. Source: Swedish Defence Forces.

International operations of different kinds are one of the three main tasks prescribed by the law to be handled by the Finnish Defence Forces. However, it has something of a special status, as the operations are manned on a completely voluntary basis as they appear. Last Saturday, January the 3rd, Brigadier general Petri Hulkko wrote a column in Finnish regional newspaper Itä-Savo, where he called for making international missions mandatory for contracted soldiers. This created some stir, with Upseeriliitto (the Finnish Officer’s Union) stating that other solutions are readily available, and noting that supply/demand-issues are rarely satisfactory solved by legislation. However, a number of individual officers also spoke out in favour of Hulkko’s proposal.

This debate serves as the backdrop for today’s article published by Helsingin Sanomat, where it is noted that one in five of the allocated personnel of the helicopter unit have expressed that they are not willing to participate in a foreign deployment. The problem is that unlike traditional “Show of flag” missions that employs large numbers of people to maintain a visible presence, positions such as helicopter mechanic demand proper qualifications, and cannot easily be filled by volunteering reservists or civilian contractors. This puts the whole participation of FIN Helicopter Unit in a possible deployment of NBG15 in doubt, which would not only cause considerable embarrassment for the Finnish political leadership, but also add to the logistical problems of the battle group as a whole.

NH 90 7
The FIN Helicopter Unit fading away into the sunset? Source: Author.