The Long, Sad Tale of Germany’s Botched Helicopter Buy
After three decades of development, NH90s are too few and unreliable
As early as the mid-1980s, German army aviation needed new helicopters. Its Vietnam-era Bell UH-1s and Sikorsky CH-53s had seen better days.
France, West Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom got together in 1985 and drafted a scheme to develop a new fly-by-wire, multipurpose helicopter—the NH90. The U.K. soon left the project.
The initial prototype took off on its debut flight in 1990 and, in 2007, the first examples were ready for combat.
But three decades is a long time for weapons-development. Governments have changed, new military strategies have formed and collapsed. The Germany that’s belatedly getting its long-awaited NH90s is a very different country than the one that originally developed the helicopter.
In short, Germany today is much less heavily armed and less ambitious in its military doctrine than it was during the Cold War. The disposition of the country’s NH90s reflect those changes.
Meanwhile, the copter’s technical problems are cause for concern.
The NH90 itself struggled through its long years of development—and ultimately proved less than perfectly reliable. The Dutch have struggled to prevent corrosion in their naval NH90s that deploy aboard warships. The Germans have had problems of their own.
In Germany, the NH90 was originally supposed to open a new era of air-assault operations, wherein different variants of the NH90 would haul troops, vehicles and equipment in lightning-fast attacks behind enemy lines. There would also be a naval version.
But when the Cold War ended, funding became scarce. The German military had wanted more than 200 HN90s but ultimately ordered just 122, making large-scale air assaults unlikely. The first few machines arrived in December 2006.
Another seven years passed before Germany deployed the NH90. In April 2013, several of the copters began flying medical-evacuation missions in Afghanistan.
On June 19, 2014, an engine on one of the deployed NH90s exploded during a training mission over Uzbekistan. On Nov. 17, the German aviation security advisory board grounded the whole fleet.
The faulty system appears to have been the integrated fire extinguisher for the turbine. On Nov. 19, the NH90s returned to flight.
The government had been renegotiating the helicopter contract, and late last year re-approved the 122-machine order … but changed the precise mix of variants. Each NH90 costs around $50 million.
Now there will be 18 navy versions plus 20 of the army machines that Germany will pool with other NATO countries. Subtracting four NH90s for training, that leaves the army with just 80 or so for its own operations.
Soon after this deal was cut, Der Spiegel and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published reports on the June incident that revealed disturbing new details.
Internal reports indicated several additional technical problems on top of the engine explosion, ranging from the spontaneous activation of the windshield wipers to uncontrolled movement of the loading ramp—which can alter flight characteristics. The engine failure reportedly overloaded a control panel, causing the other malfunctions.
It’s unclear why these other flaws didn’t show up in reports before the November negotiations.
Germany’s current NH90 model is an initial one. A “full operational capability” model is planned for 2016 and will hopefully solve the earlier edition’s faults.
So in the end, the NH90 works … kind of. But that doesn’t mean it’s an adequate replacement for the reliable old UH-1s and CH-53s. Germany might have benefited from simply buying tried-and-true UH-60 Blackhawks from Sikorsky in the U.S.
But the German government preferred a European aircraft.
It’s worth noting that recent reforms moved the army’s CH-53s to the air force. Maybe the flying branch should take the extra step and handle all of the German military’s rotorcraft.
That would require the army and air force to work closely together, but it could result in efficiencies for Germany’s much-reduced rotary-wing force.