Commercial viability is increasingly dominating work on South Korea's next helicopter, which, having begun as a military program, will now aim first to build a civil rotorcraft and then a military version.

Depending on which foreign partner is chosen, the program could result in an almost-new helicopter conceived by Bell or a greatly revised aircraft from Eurocopter or Sikorsky, while AgustaWestland is proposing that South Korea take a current type with relatively few changes.

A committee chaired by Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin is due to meet in mid-November to decide whether to go ahead next year with full-scale development of the program, the Light Civil Helicopter and Light Armed Helicopter (LCH-LAH). After that, parliamentary funding will be needed, and if all goes to plan, a foreign partner will be chosen in the third quarter of 2014, managers and engineers involved in the program say.

The LCH should be certified in 2020. Although LAH development would run only six months behind the LCH, the additional testing needed for military service should result in initial operational capability in 2022.

A sign of the diminishing military influence in the design is that the proposed army derivative is no longer called a light-attack helicopter. Yet the army's requirement for about 200 of the aircraft is the whole driving force behind LCH-LAH: By dangling such a prospective order, South Korea is attracting keen interest from prospective partners. The aircraft is expected to have a gross weight of 4.2-5.3 tons, depending on the partner, and production is to be shared 50:50 for the civil version, with South Korean industry taking a little more than half for the army's variant. The country's contribution to development is estimated at $100 million, although the cost will depend on which partner is chosen.

Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) is the likely South Korean industrial partner, since it has developed the Surion utility helicopter with a lot of help from Eurocopter; the competitor—the aerospace division of Korean Air Lines—has had limited experience. An indication of KAI's advantageous position is that it has worked out the concept design for the LCH-LAH. That was a risk-reduction exercise; the aircraft that is developed may not look much like KAI's concept.

Industry officials say Bell is proposing a largely new helicopter, using the transmission and rotor of the Bell 430, which left production in 2008. Sikorsky is offering an S-76 with bigger fuselage, while Eurocopter is similarly proposing an enlarged AS365 Dauphin. AgustaWestland is pitching its AW169 with, not surprisingly, little modification. That type is still under development.

Accordingly, Bell's entry appears to offer the most development work for South Korean industry, and AgustaWestland's, the least. But the calculation for risk and economy is the reverse: Fewer changes imply a cheaper and more dependable program. Despite its reputation for technology hunger, South Korea will not necessarily lunge for the most challenging option. The army wants its aircraft on time, and the experience of Surion's rocky development will not encourage risk-taking.

AgustaWestland even has the military version partly worked out, since it is offering the AW169 for the U.S. Army's Armed Aerial Scout program, although Andrew Symonds, vice president for Northeast Asia, says that adapting the helicopter for South Korea would create an opportunity for local development work.

The new program began last decade as the Korean Attack Helicopter. But monetary support from the industry ministry came with a demand that the aircraft have a passenger cabin for civil applications, rather than the originally intended narrow fuselage with only tandem crew seating, which would have been ideal for its military role. The army does not need to carry passengers, says an industry official, so over the battlefield, the bulky cabin will just be more weight and an enlarged target area. A turreted gun is required.

The defense ministry wanted the program launched last year, but the industry ministry demanded a feasibility study, which is now ready. The Korea Institute of Science & Technology Evaluation and Planning was due to submit its findings, expected to be favorable, at the end of October.

In the industry ministry's planning, the country is to develop an independent helicopter industry. That is far from an immediate prospect, however. Above all, industry here lacks technology that helicopter manufacturers regard as their crown jewels: transmission, rotors and automatic flight control. Even LCH-LAH, as the second South Korean helicopter program, will probably not deliver all of that. The industry expects to assemble LCH-LAH transmissions but not to make the parts, at least not at first. As production continues, some parts would be made in the country.

Meanwhile, the government's Korea Aerospace Research Institute will separately seek such critical helicopter technologies from suppliers to the major manufacturers.

The civil side of LCH-LAH, at the outset, is supposed to generate exports. For the Bell, Eurocopter and Sikorsky offerings, that seems straightforward: KAI or KAL can simply share in what would be, in effect, a new product for the world market. AgustaWestland, though, which already has its product, must have some other idea—perhaps a territorial sales allocation—but Symonds would not elaborate on that point. However the sales arrangement is worked out, Korean industry officials expect that the civil helicopter will be sold under the foreign brand.

Choice of the S-76 or Dauphin would give KAI development work and not only because the airframe would have to be adapted. Those two helicopters were developed before the days of digital design and would presumably have to be reengineered for South Korean production, even if the original configuration were followed. The Surion used the general arrangement of Eurocopter's Puma, but could never have been a mere version of that helicopter. Because it needed a computerized design, all the parts had to be different. This issue will not affect Bell's proposal, which, as a new design, will as a matter of course be computerized, while the AW169 already is.

Some foreign industry officials have wondered whether the ducted tail rotor on the KAI concept implies a preference for Eurocopter, which frequently uses such a feature. But an industry official here says the tail of the concept design was copied from the abandoned Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche.

As KAI conceives the design, the LCH will have a wheeled undercarriage, while the LAH may have skids, although the army is leaning toward wheels.

LCH-LAH specifications
Weight 4.2-5.3 metric tons 4.5-ton-class*
Length 13.5 meters 13.7 meters
Width 2.1 meters 2.1 meters
Height 4.6 meters 4.8 meters
Main rotor diameter 13.4 meters 13.4 meters
Tail rotor diameter 1.2 meters 1.2 meters
Max speed 259 kph 241 kph
Endurance 3 hr. 2 hr.
Passengers 10 N.A.
Source: Korea Aerospace Industries