Swedish frustrations as NH90 availability rates see decline

The story of Sweden’s recent helicopter procurement is a tale of two projects.

On the one hand is the purchase of 15 UH-60M Black Hawks in an extremely short timeline to fill an operational gap, while at the same time preparing to deploy a helicopter unit to Afghanistan.

On the other is the county’s experience with the NH90, which helped create the operational gap in the first place and has left rotorcraft commanders clearly frustrated.

Swedish NH90 on exercise

I heard details of both programmes at a recent helicopter conference during a presentation by the commander of the Swedish Armed Forces Helicopter Wing, and the contrasting accounts are illustrative.

Let’s take a glass half-full approach and consider the positive experience first.

With its commitment to ISAF acting as an ‘operational driver’, Stockholm pursued a government-to-government purchase of the UH-60M through the US FMS mechanism.

They purposefully did not stipulate any specific national requirements, other than installation of a compatible ELT beacon and for ‘Swedish Armed Forces’ to be printed on the tail.

All documentation was the same as the US, while training for pilots was provided by the US Army system at Fort Rucker and Fort Eustis, and the Americans also provided lessons learned from their operational experience in recent years.

CLEAR OBJECTIVES

The procurement unit was described as a highly focused organisation with a clear objective, while specialist personnel and civilian contractors were pulled in when needed.

Sweden Black Hawk

The upshot of this approach meant that it took only 100 weeks from Sweden’s signing of the UH-60M contract in 2011, under an accelerated schedule agreed with Sikorsky, to its deployment to Afghanistan – a remarkable achievement by any measure.

With that good news story out of the way, the helicopter commander turned to the status of the NH90, and the frustration at the situation was palpable.

The force has so far taken delivery of nine of 18 NH90s. For the record, these are in the initial HKP14 A/B (four aircraft) and HKP14 D (five aircraft) configurations.

Under the delayed delivery schedule, all helicopters will not be received until 2017, and a full ASW capability is not envisaged as being in place until at least 2020.

Listening to the Swedish commander, he is clearly philosophical about the delayed timeline – and is ultimately confident in the overall capabilities of the aircraft – but ratcheting up the frustration are the low availability rates the country is currently achieving with the existing in-service aircraft.

SHARP DECLINES

According to the monthly fleet status report for June 2014 to April 2015 (average serviceability/ average flight hours per aircraft per month), availability is actually dropping.

While the service managed 65% serviceability and 17 hours per aircraft in June 2014, this had fallen to a mere 34% and 11 hours in April 2015.

IMAG0313

The reasons for such a sharp decline were clearly outlined: a lack of available spare parts; the number of back orders; the lack of service bulletin material; and the maintenance burden relating to the service bulletin.

From the commander’s comments, it is clear the Swedish Armed Forces really want to love the NH90, but these issues are standing in the way of a beautiful friendship.

When it comes to the procurement of defence equipment, the country is one of the smartest customers out there, so such lingering issues must hurt.

For NHIndustries, the danger is that these early issues being experienced by Sweden are helping to fuel a wider narrative that operators are universally unhappy because the programme has been continually dogged by problems.

In fact, the pilots we have spoken to have been pretty universal in their praise of the aircraft.

At the Paris Air Show, French Army pilots who self-deployed the type to Mali in Swedish frustrations as NH90 availability rates see decline November 2014 told us about the ease and comfort of the four-day ferry flight, despite being in the air for up to five hours a time.

The Swedish commander also stressed that the service was impressed with the capabilities of the aircraft.

Representatives from the NATO Helicopter Management Agency (NAHEMA) claim the support situation was improving as it transitions from the initial phase of the programme to longer term full in-service support.

A source also noted that many of the supply issues experienced by the nations were due to their own antiquated processes rather than any problem at the supply end – although there was no suggestion that is the case in Sweden.

Nevertheless, NAHEMA needs to get a grip on the situation. Some 241 aircraft have now been delivered to various operators and the NH90 has already seen several operational deployments, so it can hardly be described as being in the early phase of the support effort.

Until the stories about the type become more about its operational activities and less about criminally low availability rates, future customers will continue to follow Sweden’s example and consider off-the-shelf purchases of proven aircraft like the Black Hawk instead.

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