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Time for a European Heavy-Lift Helicopter?

23 March 2021

The cancellation of Germany’s Schwerer Transporthubschrauber/STH (Heavy-lift Helicopter) competition and its dismissal of the two US options, combined with a long-term lack of a European alternative, poses the question: is it time for a European Heavy-Lift Helicopter?

Since the retirement of the SA321 Super Frelon from the Marine Nationale in 2010, no European state has operated a European designed Heavy-Lift Helicopter. Instead, European countries, and by extension the EU, rely on externally supplied, designed, or operated aircraft. This comes at costs in terms of economic capacity, national requirements, and at a European level, autonomy.

Heavy-lift helicopters have a large internal volume and the ability to lift around 10.000 kg of cargo or carry 50 or more passengers, depending on the situation. At present, five European states operate such aircraft and all five use Boeing CH47 Chinooks or Sikorsky CH53 Sea Stallions. Others operate medium-lift aircraft in absence of heavy-lift helicopters. Whilst many medium-lift helicopters are capable, they cannot perform all the heavy-lift tasks, whereas the opposite is true for heavy-lift helicopters. Additionally, they come with the capacity for other tasks.

Currently, there is a fleet of 960+ medium-lift helicopters across the EU. This rises to 1300+ when accounting for neighbours such as Non-EU NATO members and EU hopefuls. Together this is 20% of the worlds share of such aircraft (Kepe et al., 2019, p. 2). Many of these aircraft sit at the higher end of their class, with AW101 Merlin and H215M Cougar proliferating throughout (Flight Global, 2021).  Many are Soviet designs such as Mi-8/17, Mi- 14, and Mi 24/35.  The latter being a combination of attack and cargo helicopter. This compounds type comparison, as well as logistics harmonisation. It is worth noting that many are ageing fast, a problem applicable to many of the western designed helicopters in this class (Kepe et al., 2019. p. 3).

Additionally, there are 139 actual heavy-lift helicopters operated by EU states (rising to approximately 205 when counting the UK and Turkey, the only external heavy-lift operators in the neighbourhood). Some of these are new or have been modernised recently. However, many are ageing, and all are supplied from non-EU sources. Furthermore, all of these designs are originating in the late 1950s.

Due to their small number, heavy-lift helicopters are not always available when needed. In Mali, for example, a country 125% larger than France, operations are conducted at long-range over underdeveloped road networks, making force sustainment difficult. From 2018, the UK supplied a flight of three Chinook HC Mk 5s to aid operations in Mali under Operation Barkhane. These came four years after the commencement of operations (UK MoD, 2021) and were temporarily complemented by Canadian CH147F Chinooks, sent to MINUSMA, the United Nations mission in Mali. In both instances, Chinooks increased the operational capacity and flexibility of troops in theatre. Canadian Chinooks, however, deployed in 2018, were withdrawn in 2019 to be replaced by Romanian IAR 330 Pumas (Kelly, 2019). The latter, whilst valuable, are significantly less capable in terms of range, speed, and payload when compared to Chinooks.1

A European Heavy-Lift Helicopter is not a new idea. It has been flagged by the French and German governments as far back as 2003 (Euro Security and Defence, 2019). Germany foresaw then a need for between 60-120 aircraft for the Bundeswehr alone. Today the Bundeswehr foresees a need for 60 aircraft to replace their Sea Stallions. This is a large number for one state and ignores European need and interest for this type of aircraft. For example, France is currently thought to be considering the purchase of such an aircraft (Aero-Actu 2020).

This, in conjunction with experience from Afghanistan and Mali, highlights the need for this type of aircraft beyond Germany and France. Such an aircraft could serve Europe in several respects that current commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) and manufacture under licence programmes do not. First, it could ensure that European taxes are fully spent in Europe, thus enhancing the European Defence Industrial and Technical Base (EDITB). Secondly, it could streamline logistics, as one aircraft type could replace several. This is important, as logistical harmony is in-line with PESCO ambitions. Additionally, a more capable aircraft could replace several less capable models, thus reducing the need for large or diverse fleets. Finally, it could enhance European strategic autonomy as heavy-lift helicopters have unique force-multiplying capabilities.

Strengthening the EDITB

One benefit of a European Heavy-Lift Helicopter programme would be of economic nature. At present, all heavy-lift helicopters in Europe are of non-European design and manufacturers. Of the medium-lift helicopters mentioned, approximately 460 are of either US or Soviet heritage. This reliance on non-European systems suggests there is at least grounds to initiate an industrial study for a Pan-European helicopter project.

A brief review of aerospace manufacturers shows that a trend towards Pan-Europeanism is extant, with an Aerospace presence in all EU Member States. Additionally, the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe noted in 2019 that it employed 870,000 highly skilled workers throughout Europe (The Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe, 2020). It is essential to keep these jobs, especially when facing the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The commercial aerospace sector is also facing large job losses and it could be reorientated by an ambitious project to serve EU, NATO, and provide for national capability shortfalls. This is important when we consider such jobs are the engine of economic recovery, both directly and indirectly. The Centre for Cities argues that for every ten highly skilled jobs an industry creates, there is the creation of 17 additional jobs in the related service fields (Magrini, 2019). Finally, protecting jobs and industries through prudent purchase of European equipment is politically more desirable than the alternative. Rheinmetall’s partnership with Sikorsky in the STH competition to bring a ‘substantial workshare’ of their bid to Germany illuminates this point (Rheinmetall, 2021). A European Heavy-Lift Helicopter would by nature have 100% of its workshare in Europe.

The most common non-European medium-lift helicopters in European service (the US S70 and the Russian Mi8/17) are of Cold War vintage, so are Chinook and Sea Stallion. These designs, whilst old, are capable, having undergone extensive reengineering to improve safety, protection, avionics, range and have remained in service for decades. A European design could potentially bring decades of industrial activity to the EDTIB, not to mention additional experience in modern fields such as digital engineering, composite materials, advanced electronics, and additive manufacturing.

Streamlining Logistics:

Taking a wider view of the heavy-lift fleet, we see that logistical harmonisation is difficult, due to varying ages and states of upgrade. This is exacerbated when medium-lifts are required to fill the gaps left by such a small fleet. The European Defence Agency (EDA) is working through its Helicopter Initiative to improve European helicopter operations. However, it notes that despite many assets, helicopter support is lacking in crew training, technical equipment, and logistical support to deployed operations.

A European Heavy-Lift helicopter could ameliorate logistical issues, not only through physical capability and commonality but through innovative integrated logistics systems similar to the F35 ODIN system. This could enable manufacturers and operators to forecast maintenance needs, enabling high rates of availability.

With consideration to PESCO, Member States are expected to achieve collaborative defence harmonisation by identifying needs, pooling resources, specialising means and capabilities, and by encouraging cooperation in training and logistics to achieve the forces required by the high level of ambition set by EU Member States (Fiott et al. 2017). A large, capable, common platform would aid this ambition. Such an aircraft could benefit from novel technological approaches and contribute to the EU’s independent capabilities. Several technologies have been identified in the EDA’s Key Strategic Activity (KSA) report on Cutting Edge Technologies for Helicopters/Tiltrotors (European Defence Agency, 2021). Unfortunately, it is not possible to delve deeply into specifics as, at present, the report is not publicly available.

A tool for Strategic Autonomy?

EU Strategic Autonomy, driven by France, seeks to enable the EU to shape its destiny, free of reliance on external actors (Fiott, 2018). Thus, developing the capacity to design and build indigenous strategic assets is essential.

To be strategically autonomous in defence and security, Europe must be able to draw on organic resources. A heavy-lift helicopter aids this in several ways: 1) allowing the deployment of military resources or disaster relief at the time and place of Europe’s choosing, 2) diminishing the need for external resources, 3) providing greater interoperability to multinational forces co-operating in times of crisis.

The first point is put into sharp relief by Irish experience during EUFOR Chad, wherein Irish forces were moved by privately leased Mi-8 helicopters, due to a failure of European states to provide helicopters (Irish Examiner, 2009). Furthermore, these were not initially certified to carry personnel (Irish Independent, 2008). The vastness of Chad’s territory, made the presence of an effective airlift essential to the successful outcome of the mission. Covering long distances on poorly maintained roads, in fact, hindered the mobilization of assets, making it slow and inefficient, leaving distant communities vulnerable.

Furthering the argument for strategic autonomy, we can view the UK experience in Afghanistan, and by extension, the French in Mali.

Afghanistan is a ‘high and hot’ country in which many helicopters operate with difficulty. During Operation Herrick, the UK contribution to ISAF, UK forces placed great pressure on their heavy-lift helicopter fleet. This was due to a lack of available airframes, as there were not enough for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to maintain a reserve at home. Concurrently, the UK had eight Chinooks grounded for seven years due to a contract dispute between the UK MoD and the manufacturer Boeing (House of Commons, 2009). This stemmed from a British desire to modify the aircraft to their requirements, something opposed by the manufacturer. The result was a vital asset sitting at great expense in climate-controlled hangers whilst the parties tried to resolve their differences. Whilst Boeing are not entirely at fault, as the UK MoD received what it asked for, Boeing, for their part, seemed unwilling to expedite a solution in a timely fashion. This highlight’s one of the potential pitfalls of working with external suppliers for strategically sensitive projects.

As noted earlier, the UK provides a flight of Chinooks to Operation Barkhane. These aircraft move larger loads of troops and equipment to forward locations than can be done with European aircraft (UK MoD, 2019). Sadly, post-Brexit, Europe must consider the UK an external partner and, in this instance, Europe relies on externally supplied equipment operated by a third-party.

Daniel Fiott is correct in stating that “a more responsible EU should be militarily capable of undertaking autonomous missions and operations in its neighbourhood and globally, if so required” thus it is clear that having the tools to undertake such tasks is essential (Fiott, 2018).


This paper outlines the case for a European Heavy-Lift Helicopter through the lenses of European economics, logistics, and autonomy. It must be acknowledged that it is difficult to detail the full scope of practical matters that would need to be overcome to realise such a project. Regardless, it is worth remembering that the EDA’s recent Comprehensive Annual Review on Defence stated a desire to enhance European mobility by improving air and sea transportation (European Defence Agency,2020). In conjunction with the difficulties discussed above and the fact that many EU Member States either lack capability or operate older foreign models, a Heavy-Lift Helicopter initiative is worthy of serious consideration.

A Heavy-Lift Helicopter could be realised in two ways: first, as an interim force of pooled models, bought and shared like NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability. This would allow a short-term development of EU and national capability through shared resources. However, this comes with the cost of spending defence Euros on foreign equipment. The second option is a pooling of EU EDITB resources and engaging in designing and building a model to European specifications.

Whilst more challenging, it is not without precedence. EU states have co-operated on several large projects, including the A400m and the NH90. The latter realised a highly advanced and capable, multi-role, medium-lift helicopter. The experience and lessons learned herein could enhance the viability of a European Heavy-Lift Helicopter project with the benefits of pan-European collaboration, maintenance of jobs, enhancement of the EDITB and EU strategic autonomy; and whilst no great project is without risk, it is clear to see that the potential rewards are large.

1 For a brief consideration of the capabilities of both aircraft: Chinook CH147F has a capacity for 55 troops, 24 stretchers with three attendants or a 12700kg cargo payload, it has a cruise speed of 160 kn (300 km/h) and a maximum range of 1200 km. The  IAR 330 Puma Capacity: 16 troops or six stretchers with one attendant or 2000kgs cargo (UK HC2 version) Cruise speed: 146 kn 271 km/h (271 km/h) with a maximum range of 592 km. (Adapted from Wikipedia: and as well as and (for PUMA HC2) and ). Whilst not exhaustive, it is illustrative of the fact that Chinook is considerably more capable across the board.

Written by Dermot NOLAN, Editor at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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