The U.S. may underwrite the security of South Korea, but European manufacturers have put up the most persuasive offers for the country’s next battlefield utility helicopter and civil derivative. 

Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) has shortlisted Airbus Helicopters and AgustaWestland for the LCH-LAH (Light Civil Helicopter and the Light Armed Helicopter) civil and military rotorcraft program, for which production is planned for at least 200 units for the army alone. KAI, the intended prime contractor, may select between the two of them as early as the first quarter of 2015, but the choice will need approval from the defense ministry.

The candidate base designs are the Airbus EC155 B1 and the AgustaWestland AW169. KAI has been in intensive negotiations with the two European companies, says a South Korean industry official, confirming their selection.

Sikorsky appears to have failed in offering the S-76—though the U.S. company remains interested in the program—while Bell, after suggesting it might bid, seems not to have done so. KAI declines to confirm that Sikorsky was the rejected third bidder. Airbus stands a chance of winning both of Northeast Asia’s main utility helicopter programs, since it also is bidding for the Japanese army’s UH-X requirement.

KAI is faced with a choice between the modernity and probable economy of the AW169, which AgustaWestland is still flight-testing, and the larger industrial and engineering development opportunities of the EC155, which was certified in 1998 and is based on the Dauphin of the 1970s.

Airbus is also better placed to give commercial aircraft production work to KAI to offset the value of the parts that South Korea imports, not to mention its reported offer to cease building the EC155 in France. Although AgustaWestland  parent Finmeccanica may be able to let a contract for parts for the ATR 72 turboprop, KAI does not see much production work in the AgustaWestland offer, says an industry official. 

The LCH-LAH program appears to be making slow progress, according to another industry official, who believes that KAI is distracted by the much larger (and seemingly interminable) proposal to build the KF-X indigenous fighter.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (Motie) is overseeing the export-oriented civil side of the program, focusing on the business plan, while the defense ministry’s acquisition office, the Defense Acquisition Program Agency (DAPA), has control over the army’s version. 

The army requires at least 200 helicopters of this type. The government has specified a gross weight of about 4.5 metric tons (10,000 lb.), though the EC155 weighs 4.9 tons.

Three foreign companies proposed base designs for the technology development phase; KAI has now narrowed the selection to AgustaWestland and Airbus. Sikorsky still expresses interest, saying LCH-LAH is an ambitious program “that would benefit from the proven capabilities of our S-76 helicopter platform.” Bell says it is not participating. From the two U.S. companies’ statements, it appears Bell was the one that decided not to bid. It had considered proposing a new helicopter using the drivetrain and rotor system of the Bell 430, which is out of production.

South Korea has adopted peculiar bidding arrangements for this program. KAI and Korean Airlines were required to compete for the prime contract, offering a price for development, before receiving proposals from the foreign partners—proposals that would affect the cost of development. Only after it was selected as the preferred prime contractor could KAI invite those proposals. Choosing the one that involves the least development cost should now be in its interest, but the choice also needs approval from DAPA, which, conceivably, may prefer the more costly proposal.

The AW169 should be the least expensive, since, as a new helicopter, it should need little or no improvement for its civil version.

KAI plans to choose a foreign partner in the first half of 2015, says the South Korean industry official, adding that the company “is in technical negotiation with DAPA for the LAH contract, while maintaining close communication with Motie for the LCH agreement.” Airbus is expecting the final selection to be made in the first quarter, says a spokeswoman for that company, declining to comment further.

The European company is in the unusual position of having two products to offer for two quite similar requirements—and to two customers that are next to each other geographically but do not get along well. While Airbus proposes the EC155 to South Korea, it is urging Japan to choose the forthcoming X4 helicopter for that country’s army UH-X program.

Proposing the more advanced product to Japan will ruffle feathers in South Korea, but Airbus should have several strong reasons to offer the EC155 to KAI and DAPA for that decision: the X4 is probably much too big for the South Korean requirement; it probably cannot be available in a military version soon enough for the army’s demanding schedule; and the EC155, unlike the X4, can be transferred to South Korea for sole-source production.


A version of this article appears in the January 15-February 1, 2015 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.