New European Attack Helicopters Set To Debut In Mid-2020s
By the middle of the decade, Europe’s armies are set to begin fielding new fleets of attack helicopters produced in a wave of indigenous development.
Both Italy and Turkey are separately developing clean-sheet 8-10-metric-ton attack helicopter platforms. The goal is replacing or supplementing the aircraft they codeveloped, the Leonardo AW129 Mangusta, which is currently produced in Turkey by Turkish Aerospace as the T129 ATAK.
- Leonardo’s AW249 attack helicopter will use GE’s CT7 engine
- Airbus hopes to sign Tiger Mk. 3 agreement before year-end
- Turkish heavy attack helicopter could be powered by a Ukrainian engine
The rotorcraft industry in France, Germany and Spain is hoping it can finally sign contracts in the coming weeks on the development of a midlife upgrade for the Airbus Tiger helicopter that will transform the capabilities of the aircraft to keep it relevant into the 2040s.
Meanwhile, both Airbus and Leonardo are developing kits to enable the arming of dual-use aircraft. Airbus’ HForce initiative has turned the company’s H145M twin-engine light helicopter into a successful aerial scout that has been adopted by Serbia and Hungary and is being offered to Romania.
Trials to launch guided missiles, such as the Israeli Rafael Spike, from the H145M are expected to take place shortly. Leonardo is developing an armed capability for its AW149 twin-engine medium utility platform ordered by Egypt.
The Italian manufacturer has been simultaneously advancing development of the new AW249 attack helicopter. Contracts for its development, under Italy’s New Exploration and Escort Helicopter (NEES) program, were issued by Rome in 2017 with the aim of replacing the AW129 in Italian Army service starting in 2025.
The rotary-wing aircraft manufacturer has been tight-lipped about the platform’s development. But the aircraft will build on the existing and proven dynamic systems of the AW149, with Leonardo wrapping the attack helicopter fuselage and systems around them—saving development time and money.
The AW249 will also use the 2,500-shp General Electric CT7-8E6 turboshaft the army recently revealed through its website. The same engine is used on the AW149 and on Italy’s NH90 fleet, simplifying logistics chains and support programs. However, the certification of Safran’s Aneto engine on the AW149 and its commercial derivative, the AW189, could enable that engine to be used on the AW249 as well. There will also be reuse of existing Mangusta armaments, including its TM 197B 20-mm nose-mounted gun and the Spike missile system.
With a maximum takeoff weight of 7.5-8 metric tons, the AW249 weight is almost twice that of the Italian Mangustas. This additional weight reflects calls for increased endurance, a larger weapons capacity and new capabilities including manned-unmanned teaming, battlefield management systems and tactical data links.
Italian requirements call for the purchase of 48 helicopters in all as part of a €2.77 billion ($3.3 billion) budget, briefing documents from the Italian Senate show. But Leonardo also has an eye on the export market: It has proposed cooperating on the development with Poland as Warsaw considers replacing its Soviet-era Mil Mi-24/25 Hinds.
Although Italy and Turkey cooperated on the development of the T129, Turkey is taking an independent route in developing its next-generation attack helicopter. Turkish Aerospace’s (TAI) Heavy-Class Attack Helicopter, often referred to as the ATAK 2 but also known as the T929, is being developed off the back of the company’s growing experience with the T129 and its indigenous development of the T625 Gokbey utility helicopter. That said, the ATAK 2—-which will be much larger than its predecessor—will be similar in size to Boeing’s AH-64 Apache with a maximum takeoff weight of around 10 tons.
The ATAK 2’s bigger size is in response to demands for increased weapons payload and endurance as well as hot-and-high performance for operations in the country’s southeastern regions. Ankara’s defense materiel agency, SSB, signed agreements in early 2019 for the development of the Heavy-Class Attack Helicopter with the aim of flying a prototype in 2024. No formal decision on engine choice has emerged yet. But TAI CEO Temel Kotil told Turkish media in March that the powerplant could be sourced from Ukraine, leaning on a new defense relationship between Ankara and Kiev.
TAI has also revealed concepts for a so-called T629 attack helicopter that would use the dynamic systems of the T625. However, a recent mock-up image of that aircraft suggests it is now being developed as an uncrewed system. The aircraft had been previously described as an ATAK 1.5. It would appear that the OEM is looking to develop a family of dedicated attack helicopters at a range of sizes and weights. This would constitute an offering unmatched by TAI’s Western counterparts, although the assumption is that such programs will be funded by domestic or export customers.
In the meantime, TAI is continuing development of a new T129 configuration called the Faz-2 (Phase-2). This variant calls for an enhanced self-protection suite. Turkey still hopes to fulfill its contract with Pakistan to supply 30 T129 ATAKs for the Pakistani Army, but the export of the aircraft has been slowed due to difficulties in securing export licenses for the T129’s LHTEC T800 engines.
Pakistan has extended deadlines for TAI to deliver the helicopter, but the clock is ticking. Turkey is also developing an indigenous engine, the TS1400, which could drop into the T800’s place. Flight testing of the new engine is still some way off and may not meet Islamabad’s timelines.
A long-awaited plan to upgrade the Tiger attack helicopter is still awaiting contract signing six years after architecture studies were announced in 2015.
The Mk. 3 program is expected to bring greater commonality and reduced obsolescence to the Tiger fleets of the three European operators—France, Germany and Spain. Australia, the fourth operator of the type, recently opted to replace its Tigers with AH-64E Apaches.
Germany’s aircraft, delivered in the UHT configuration, differ greatly from those of France and Spain—which both now fly the HAD version. All three countries currently use a different missile as the type’s primary weapon. Proposals to introduce a common weapon for the three countries appear to have dissipated. Spain plans to continue to use the Rafael Spike missile, and Germany is expected to adopt the same weapon for its Tigers, after abandoning the introduction of the expensive MBDA PARS 3LR munition.
France, which had been using the Lockheed Martin Hellfire missile, has subsequently turned to MBDA to develop a new weapon. The ordnance, called MAST-F, will be an air-launched derivative of the company’s MMP man-portable anti-tank missile. MBDA says the weapon weighs 20% less than competitors’ offerings, providing weight savings that should allow the Tiger to carry more fuel.
Other capabilities being considered for the Tiger Mk. 3 include the addition of a Link 16 data link, improved sighting systems and modernized avionics. Thales said in 2019 that its FlytX avionics suite was being considered for the Mk. 3 upgrade.
Until a Tiger Mk. 3 contract is signed, it remains unclear when the upgraded platform will reach the front line. But proposals for MAST-F call for qualification firings to be conducted in 2026 and deliveries in 2028, potentially hinting at a timeline for when France expects the renewed attack helicopter to enter service.