22 November 2020
NATO announced on 20 November 2020 that five member states (France, Germany, Italy, Greece and the United Kingdom) have signed an agreement (“letters of intent”) to collaborate on the development of a new utility helicopter for use by alliance forces.
The signing ceremony was conducted by defence ministry representatives at their capital cities in a virtual meeting. The project was launched on the margins of the virtually held NATO defence ministerial meeting in October.
Exact details, timetables and costs of NATO’s next-generation helicopter project, called ‘Next-Generation Rotorcraft Capabilities’, are not known but it is one of the alliance’s High Visibility Projects. The aim is to develop a new multirole helicopter to replace the current types in service. “A significant number of medium multi-role helicopter capabilities currently operated by allies will reach the end of their life cycle in the 2035 – 2040 period and beyond, with the subsequent need for replacements,” the NATO statement said.
According to a NATO official cited by Defense News the letters of intent are non-binding documents, and the initial cooperation effort is in principle open to other NATO allies and partners, subject to the approval of the existing participants. NATO envisions that the defence ministers from participating countries would sign a legally binding Memorandum of Understanding for the initial concept phase in 2022. In the meantime, the allies will develop a statement of requirements to inform the concept phase and negotiate a cooperation plan to define, develop and field the next-generation helicopter. The 2021 discussions are not expected to require substantial capital expenditures.
The new capability would be involved in missions including insertion and extraction of special operations forces, transport of cargo and troops, medical evacuation, search and rescue and anti-submarine warfare. As medium-sized helicopters, they would fit between what NATO describes as light and heavy helicopters.
Currently, the mainstay of the participating countries is the NHIndustries NH-90 helicopter operated by France, Germany, Italy and Greece, while the UK relies on Merlin and Wildcat utility helicopters.