Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) has chosen the Airbus Helicopters H155 as the basis for LCH-LAH civil and military rotorcraft, adding South Korean production of more than 200 units to a program the European manufacturer is replacing. The H155, formerly the EC155 B1, beat the AgustaWestland AW169, the other shortlisted type. 

The South Korean program is intended to develop the Light Civil Helicopter (LCH) for entry into service in 2020, and the derivative Light Armed Helicopter (LAH), which would become operational with the South Korean army in 2022. The army needs at least 200 LAHs. South Korea targeted a 4.5-metric-ton (10,000-lb.) aircraft, but the H155 is heavier, at 4.9 tons.

Airbus has previously supported KAI in developing the Surion utility helicopter. It has now agreed to transfer technology for the LCH-LAH, which, like the Surion, is to be built in South Korea.

“By continuing our relationship, we will significantly reduce the risks of these two new development programs, while meeting all of the mission requirements,” says Airbus Helicopters President Guillaume Faury.

South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Agency (DAPA) chose KAI last year as the preferred bidder for LCH-LAH. However, competition from Korean Air Lines forced KAI to bid quite low to secure the deal, South Korean industry officials say. The next step for the program should be for KAI to sign a contract with DAPA and the industry ministry covering at least development of the type. Development will require more than 1 trillion won ($890 million) in South Korean investment, says KAI.

In winning this program, Airbus has secured a second life for a product that it otherwise looked likely to phase out. The 5.5-6-ton H160, now under development, should succeed the H155, a late-1990s helicopter based on the AS365 Dauphin of the 1970s. Among the differences, the H155 has a wider cabin. The type has not been a great commercial success, with only about 180 sold in the 18 years since its first flight.

Consistent with a product near the end of its life, Airbus has reportedly offered to transfer H155 production to South Korea. It would cease H155 manufacturing in France.

Although the H155 has appeared to need more of a development effort than the AW169, which is still in flight testing, Airbus should have been able to offer some advantages in production cost. Fabrication machinery is already available, and the type must now be well down the learning curve, with production managers having worked out the most economical methods of building it.

Sikorsky considered but decided against submitting a bid based on its S-76D, that company says.

Airbus says the LCH-LAH will become the “leading next-generation light rotorcraft in the 5-metric-ton weight category.” It is not clear how. The company has previously said that South Korea’s schedule leaves insufficient time for major modifications to the H155 airframe, although the budget is enough to pay for them. Two other industry officials familiar with the program say the target date for the LCH’s entry into service istoo near for developing a new helicopter or improving an established one sufficiently for long-term competitiveness. And, with the H155, the LCH is not starting with a roaringly successful base type. 

The two-engine H155 is not abundantly powered, as a battlefield helicopter should be. That raises the possibility of fitting a newer and larger turboshaft to replace the Turbomeca Arriel 2C2—if there is time. One candidate could be Turbomeca Ardiden, which will power the Chinese version of the H175, the AC352.

There has never been an armed version of the EC155, which was targeted at VIP, corporate and offshore oil-and-gas support markets. Airbus’s drawing of the LAH shows modifications for weapons carriage, including stub wings carrying rocket pods. The landing gear will be lengthened to accommodate a gun under the nose. Also notable above the cockpit is the Sagem Strix sight, like that fitted to the Tiger attack helicopter. That will be needed for firing of precision-guided rockets from the pods.

The LCH-LAH program has been underway for more than 10 years. In the first half of last decade, it was part of a massive proposal for 477 rotorcraft called the Korean Multirole Helicopter. The difficulty or impossibility of one type affordably covering all of the army’s requirements resulted in an initial go-ahead for the 8.7-ton Korean Utility Helicopter, later called Surion.

That left the army still needing a light attack helicopter, which was then called the Korean Attack Helicopter. For a time it was envisaged as a dedicated attack machine with a slim fuselage accommodating two crewmembers in tandem. But in 2010, the industry ministry, now participating in the program, insisted that the helicopter have a passenger cabin so it could also serve as a civil product. By 2013, the civil side of the program seemed to be in the driver’s seat, with the military version slated to go into service second and its classification downgraded from attack to armed helicopter.