The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan placed new emphasis on the capabilities of helicopters.

During the Cold War, utility helicopters were little more than battlefield runabouts. Flying supplies and shuttling personnel between front and rear echelons, they were rarely exposed to enemy fire and seldom had real self-defense capabilities. The fleet was vast, with hundreds of Bell UH-1 (Huey) Iroquois, Aerospatiale Pumas and Gazelles, and Westland Lynx serving with NATO forces. But with fleets shrinking and conflicts evolving, air arms are using these aging machines on the front lines in new roles that some were not ready for.

Afghanistan is perhaps the ultimate testing ground for helicopters, with summer temperatures above 35C (95F) during the day and much of the country more than 1,000 meters (3,300 ft.) above sea level. The hot-and-high conditions alone test the performance of these helicopters to their limits, but they also need to be fitted with armor, self-defense systems, weapons and other gear to keep them effective and safe. With payloads often chopped in half or more, so that even basic missions demand more or larger helicopters to complete tasks normally conducted by smaller machines, forces recognize the need to reexamine the capability of their rotorcraft fleets.

However, limited budgets, long waiting times for production slots and lengthy lead times for the introduction of new types have led governments to examine the potential for upgrading fleets to ensure operation in challenging environments, or to keep them available until economic conditions allow replacement.

Much of the upgrading frenzy is taking place in Europe. The U.K. alone has carried out significant upgrade programs on four of six types in its battlefield inventory.

Perhaps the most significant is Project Julius, a program to deliver commonality across the U.K's fleet of 46 Boeing CH-47 Chinooks operated by the RAF. The project, worth £500 million ($750 million), standardizes the fleet to a single cockpit avionics standard using Thales's TopDeck system, while Honeywell delivers up-rated T55-714 engines that improve hot-and-high operating capability. The upgrade was needed to standardize training and support across the Chinook fleet, which has been heavily tasked in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The project has finally allowed the RAF to rectify a procurement blunder and use eight Chinook HC3s that were ordered for special operations in 1995, but have never been fully operational due to a complex dispute over the airworthiness of their avionics source code. Even after a reversion process by Qinetiq, the ill-starred aircraft were relegated for training. But with the Julius upgrade, they could eventually fly the special forces missions for which they were intended. The upgrade also reduces differences between the older fleet and a batch of 12 factory-new Chinooks, the first of which is due this year.

The Westland Lynx utility helicopter was another type to go under the knife for Afghanistan. Under a £50 million urgent operational requirement, AgustaWestland took the LHTEC CTS800 engines destined for the new Wildcat and retrofitted them onto the Lynx AH9 fleet, replacing the Rolls-Royce Gem engines and transforming their hot-and-high performance in Afghanistan.

Commanders used to describe the Gem-equipped Lynx as “asthmatic” in the Afghan heat, pointing out that the type could “barely hop over the perimeter fence” on a summer day. The performance of the AH9A model allows the British Joint Helicopter Force to add electro-optical (EO) sensors and Browning 50-cal. door guns, giving it a useful light attack and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability without commanders having to resort to the more expensive Boeing AH-64 Apache and its sensors.

Away from Afghanistan, the U.K. is also updating its elderly Westland Pumas. Twenty-four are being upgraded by Eurocopter in France and Romania under the £300 million Puma Life Extension Program launched in September 2009. The U.K. examined various options, including Denel's Oryx Puma upgrade, before choosing the Eurocopter program. The upgrade is based on work carried out on the Puma fleet for the United Arab Emirates army, but features a new avionics suite similar to that in the Eurocopter EC725, new Turbomeca Makila engines and a modified gearbox for the extra power. The aircraft are being rewired and given a new fuel tank, which will extend range, potentially making it more attractive to special forces. The type is understood to be the preferred mount of U.K. special operators. The first converted aircraft are undergoing flight tests in the U.K. and are due to reenter service this year.

Upgrades to Pumas are relatively common, as the type fits a niche in many air arms. The French army and air force fleet of 26 Eurocopter AS532 Cougars are being progressively upgraded with avionics and self-defense systems, allowing them to continue operations alongside the new NH90 Caiman. Upgraded Cougars can be identified by a new EO camera system in the nose.

In Switzerland, Ruag Aviation has developed a Super Puma upgrade that the company is retrofitting for the Swiss air force fleet. The update brings the aircraft up to the same avionics fit as the Cougars purchased by the Swiss in 2001 and introduces GPS-INS navigation, a flight-management system and a TCAS collision-warning system, allowing them to fly outside the country. The aircraft have also been fitted with an EO camera system attached to a port-side pylon. Upgrading the fleet of 15 aircraft is due to be completed by the end of 2014 and should give the Super Pumas at least another 15 years of life.

Perhaps the most significant French upgrade program is for the navy's Panther fleet, which is being upgraded to what the service calls Standard 2. An €80 million ($104 million) update was developed to solve deficiencies in aircraft capability and reduce pilot workload. The mid-life update gives the aircraft new avionics and a self-protection suite. It also lets the Panther carry a light antiship missile, while a new EO turret attached to a port pylon provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaisance. The first Standard 2 Panthers returned to service in 2012.

Eurocopter's Brazilian partner Helibras is working on an upgrade for the Panthers of the Brazilian army. The Pantera K2 program adds the Arriel 2C2CG engine, which reportedly reduces time between overhauls, and a Fadec system. To cope with the extra power, it features a modernized main gearbox. New avionics are being fitted along with a four-axis digital autopilot.

Germany has a need for a heavy-lift helicopter but is unable to fund development. It has decided instead to keep its aging Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters, which were license-built in Germany during the 1970s. Eurocopter is giving the aircraft a new avionics suite and extending the life of the airframe to 10,000 from 6,000 hr., allowing helicopters to keep flying to 2025 and probably beyond. The new CH-53GA features a modern digital cockpit using Rockwell Collins's CAAS suite, renamed German Avionics Management System, and adds a four-axis autopilot and new radios to make the aircraft interoperable with NATO and U.S. assets. The update also adds a Selex-made EO/IR turret on the nose.

Other changes include a new electronic warfare system and an auxiliary fuel tank in the rear cabin, which gives the aircraft a range of 1,200 km (745 mi.). Forty CH-53s will be converted to the GA standard. The type is in use by German forces in northern Afghanistan, and several machines there are to be fitted with a landing system that will aid pilots in brownout landings. SeLa, or Sensor-based Landing Aid, has been developed by ESG and uses radar distance, drift sensors and a low-light TV to feed the crew aircraft attitude information, reducing the need for outside vision.

Europe's attack helicopters are also getting attention. While Italy updates its utility fleet with the NH90, the army's AW129 Mangustas will receive the new Rafael Spike missile to replace the aging TOW system, which has been the aircraft's primary weapon since the type entered service in the late 1980s. The new Mangusta, designated AH-129D, will also receive the Rafael TopLite III EO turret and laser-sighting system, and the ability to fire the Hydra 70 Mk.66 unguided rocket.

AgustaWestland is preparing the first batch of three aircraft for delivery in April. Of the 59 Mangustas in service with the army, 32 will be upgraded to the AH-129D standard. The rest will be AH-129C versions. Deliveries of the upgraded aircraft will be completed in 2014.