Backing the right horse

Paul Beaver reports on the British Army’s search for a new attack helicopter.

AS THE COMPETITION to provide the British Army’s largest defence contract this decade enters the final furlong, there are two strong favourites neck-and-neck in a six-horse race. Even at this stage, there is still room for one of the other runners to take the lead and win the £2 billion jackpot.

Before the British House of Commons goes into its summer recess, the Secretary of State for Defence will have told Parliament which attack helicopter will arm the Army Air Corps in the next century.

The choice will not have been easy. Each contender has its own merits and in several cases there is little to choose between them. In the end, a special sub-committee of the Cabinet will have weighed the recommendations of the Army Board and its technical advisers to select a solution which fulfils technical merit and political expediency. It won’t suit everyone, of course, but these decisions never do.

As the new year dawned there were strong indications from the corridors of power at Whitehall that there were two main contenders leading the pock — the Longbow Apache and the Tiger.

The two helicopters symbolise the dilemma facing the British Government; should it support the special transatlantic industrial relationship or the growth of pan-European industry? Within the Cabinet, it is said that Malcolm Rifkind (Defence) and Jonathan Aitken (Chief Secretary) favour an American solution, while Michael Heseltine (Trade) and Douglas Hurd (Foreign) want a European contender to be selected.

Both the perceived leading designs promise significant British involvement in the final product, as the Longbow Apache is a partnership between McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems and Westland Helicopters. The Tiger is from the Eurocopter stable of Aerospatiale and Daimler-Benz Aerospace, with British Aerospace having a stake in the workshare if the helicopter is selected.

Besides the Longbow Apache, the US supporters have the Cobra Venom (Bell Helicopter Textron/GEC) and the RAH-66 Comanche, although this is on extreme outsider with its domestic US Army Aviation future in doubt.

Until 1994, the buy-European supporters also had the Italian A129 International from Agusta as a possible contender, but the manufacturers — in some degree of financial turmoil — decided to pull out of the British competition because of the rising costs of bidding.

During last year, a dark horse, an outsider to the race between North American and European designs, mode all the running. From South Africa, the Atlas Rooivalk, based on proven French technology from the Super Puma, but designed with the battlefield experience of Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe behind it, made even the British military establishment, including the Director of Army Aviation sit up and take note.

The helicopter, which has the personal backing of President Nelson Mandela, was displayed for the first time in the United Kingdom during the International Air Show at Middle Wallop.

In fact, all four leading contenders for the new attack helicopter programme lined up at Middle Wallop; the home of the British Army’s long association with battlefield aviation. Among the tens of thousands who came to watch army flying at its best was the man who will recommend the winning competitor to the Cabinet.

Dr David Hughes, Director of Helicopter Projects, confirmed then that value-for-money will be the key selection criterion. And not just the cost of the airframe, engines and weapon system now, but the through-life cost, perhaps over 20 or even 30 years.

He said, «although the UK has very specific requirements, it won’t necessarily be the helicopter that completely fits the bill which wins.’

By late last year, the bids were in place. It is said that the final documentation for the bids was over 13ft (4m) high and weighed almost a ton. It is believed that the South African Air Force actually flew the Rooivalk bid details and the various specification justifications to the United Kingdom on a special Hercules flight.

Critics of Rooivalk say that a helicopter built in South Africa is less supportable than one from the more traditional manufacturers in Europe and North America. Atlas Aviation says it may be new to the business of bidding into NATO nation competitions, but it has been working with Aerospatiale and other helicopter suppliers since 1962. The company also points to 20 years of battlefield experience to feed into the system, and emphasises that the Rooivalk contains considerable low-risk technology which has been tried and tested.

The real problem with the original perception of Rooivalk was the possibility mat the Kentron ZT-3 anti-tank missile would have to be specified. This system, although operational in the final days of the Angolan Bush War, was unknown to the British Army and considered impossible to support.

By last June, it became clear that the ZT-3 would not be in the South African proposal and that the Rockwell/Martin Marietta Hellfire or the British development, the GEC Brimstone, would be the offered main weapon system.

The South African Air Force, which has already ordered the Rooivalk, places great emphasis on a good, robust, easily-maintained gun system. For the British Army, the chin-mounted cannon is also vital, so there is commonality there.

Rooivalk has also been tested with a South African air-to-air missile, although Short’s Starstreak or the Stinger self-defence missile is a more suitable weapon, according to the Invitation to Tender document.

Both Rooivalk and Longbow Apache could be offered with the Rolls-Turbomeca RTM 322-01 turboshaft, to replace the Turbomeca Mokila/Topaz and General Electric T700-GE-701 respectively, according to Rolls-Royce. «We believe that the RTM is a very serious option and a lot of work has been put into its integration with the Apache over the last six months,» said Tom Egan from Rolls-Royce.

«We have also received an approach from Marshall Aerospace (the Rooivalk UK team leader) to examine the RTM as an option for the Rooivalk, to raise the UK content,» he said, adding «the changing political environment has made this a viable option for us. Having Turbomeca as a partner, we know all about the helicopter’s existing Makila/Topaz dynamics system.»

In December, the US State Department appeared to seriously endanger the Rooivalk bid by refusing to release some key technologies to the South African manufacturers, claiming that technically the United Nations’ arms embargo was still in force.

A month earlier, President Mandela had personally appealed for an end to the anti-Rooivalk manoeuvrings in Washington when he made a state visit to President Clinton. Then the problem was the release of key technologies for the night sighting system and it appeared its release would be linked to South African Airways buying US-made airliners.

Even if the Rooivalk is not successful, it has proved that the helicopter is viable and technologically sound, otherwise the British Army would not have allowed its unsolicited bid to have been lodged. Rooivalk is still in the international export arena with keen interest being shown by Malaysia and China.

For many, the Longbow Apache has long been seen as the Army Air Corps’ choice; a baseline against which all other types must be tried and tested. Whilst it is true that a number, perhaps even the majority of ACE pilots, would like to see the Apache enter service, there are a growing number of supporters for the Tiger.

Support for the Tiger grew immediately after the aircraft’s first display at Middle Wallop, the first one in the United Kingdom, by the chief test pilot, Andy Warner, himself a former Army Air Corps pilot.

The Tiger has two immediate concerns — the perceived problem with fulfilling the full up mission profile with gun and missile armament, and the main weapon system, the tri-national Trigat. Trigat (Third Generation Anti-Tank Missile) is being developed and built by Aerospatiale, BAe and DASA to provide all three armies with a new generation ground or helicopter-launched weapon system.

Critics say that Trigat does not have the range to defeat the current and future Russian-designed anti-helicopter defences of modern main battle tanks and that it requires the helicopter carrying the weapon to be unmasked for too long above the trees.

Supporters argue that Trigat is the only test flown fire-and-forget anti-tank missile and that it has a 5-mile (8km) range which is perfectly adequate, matching the range of Hellfire in normal conditions.

Trigat, it is claimed, also has important features in its targeting system which prevent blue-on-blue or fratricide engagements. The detection system is total passive, using the OSIRIS mast-mounted sight and the system is capable of salvo firing.

Conditions in north-west Europe and many other parts of the world are rarely normal of course — and, perhaps with the exception of the Californian desert, it is unlikely that even a modern advanced attack helicopter will be engaging targets further than about 2/2 or 3 miles (4 or 5km).

However, the Tiger’s French designers claim that the helicopter could be modified to carry the Hellfire or Brimstone missile if the Trigat programme is found wanting — which, incidentally, they do not believe will be the case.

The Tiger will enter service with the French ALAT and German HeeresRieger in the 1998-2001 timeframe and is considered to be the front-runner for the Royal Netherlands Air Force attack helicopter, even though a leaked government document said in January that the Tiger is «not meeting requirements» in terms of operational performance, survivability and availability.

The Tiger does, however, offer lower life-cycle costs than Apache, says the Dutch Government.

The US Army, keen to see European commonality with its AH-64A/C/D Apache fleet, is offering the Dutch the opportunity to fry ten AH-64As on lease from 1996 until the 1999 in-service date. The same leaked report which criticised the Tiger’s performance, also said that the helicopter will not be available for service until 2003.

So keen are the Italians to be selected by the Dutch, that they have offered ten A 129A airframes to the Royal Netherlands Air Force on a 30-month gratis lease. The Dutch competition has also given a preview of the initial purchase price ratios of the three contenders; the manufacturers are offering 32 AH-64Ds; 34 Tigers; 36 A 129 Mk 7s. On December 17 last year, the first A 129 International multi-role combat helicopter with a five-bladed main rotor system, mode its first flight at Agusta’s Coscina Costa facility.

Supporters of the Cobro Venom say that this helicopter provides the all-important cost effectiveness and is based on a reliable design which has been tried and tested in conflicts around the world. The AH-1W will remain a two-bladed helicopter, which critics say does not allow the pilot to manoeuvre the helicopter in nop-of-the-earth flight regimes. Bell says that the British Army role calls for most of its flight profile to be spent at between 30 and 70kts, so it is creeping flight not combat flight.

Cobra Venom has the added advantage of being able to fire the British Army’s remaining TOW missiles (which are destined to remain in service until 2001) and can also carry the Hellfire. Some development work, thought to amount to £80 million, will be needed to bring the Cobra’s avionics and fire control up to the standards specified by the British Army, but overall, the Cobra Venom will probably have the Treasury’s support on cost grounds alone.

The Royal Marines, who fly the Lynx/TOW are not destined to receive any of the 91 new attack helicopters required by the UK Ministry of Defence. Yet, the naval and maritime community appears to favour the marinised Cobra over the other contestants. It is the chosen helicopter of the US Marine Corps and there is a certain amount of inter-operability between the two services, perhaps increasingly so.

Finally, there is the bench mark. It now seems that McDonnell Douglos and Westland will offer the AH-64C and AH-64D models of the Longbow Apache. AH-64C is fitted for — but not with — the Westinghouse mast-top millimetric wave radar which takes the radio-frequency Hellfire or Brimstone to its target without the Apache having to completely unmask. One operational scenario being considered last year was to use an AH-64D as the lead helicopter in the fire team, designating the targets for the AH-64Cs; both versions can carry up to 16 Hellfires.

Longbow Apache has been criticised for being large, which it is, and for being old technology, which it is not. GEC says that the Longbow Apache will cost the British taxpayer a third as much again to buy, but McDonnell Douglas has countered with a claim that the AH-64 has a better in-service utilisation rate.

Westland says that the Apache is the only true off-the-shelf competitor and the only helicopter capable of performing the three main, still classified, roles simultaneously.

Commonality with the US Army will certainly be an important decision point for the UK Government, as it is widely stated that Britain is highly unlikely to go to war again unilaterally.

Final bids were due in as we went to press, and the decision is expected in July.

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