Rotorcraft will remain vital to military and security operations for a long time to come. In this context, there will be a concomitant requirement for military helicopters of various types in the conflict-prone and volatile regions of the world, including the Middle East.
Whereas the market for civil helicopters has become soft, figures by analysts show an upward trend in the military market. Aircraft broker AvBuyer forecasts the $21.7 billion global military rotorcraft market will reach $28.1 billion by 2026. It estimates the multi-mission and maritime helicopter segment accounts for 44.6 per cent of the market, followed by attack (28.5 per cent), transport (25.2 per cent) and training helicopters (1.7 per cent).
Despite budget constraints in many countries, there is an argument to be made for continued investment in advanced military capabilities in the face of resurgent conventional, asymmetric and extremist threats on a broad scale.
Helicopter manufacturers have come to grasp the notion of multi-mission capabilities, i.e. dual-use platforms, for some militaries. Leonardo’s (formerly Finmeccanica) light utility helicopters, such as the AW109 and AW139, have both commercial and military application. The same goes for Airbus Helicopters, with its repurposed range that includes the H125M, H135M and H145M (formerly EC645) light utility helicopters.
At present, the Afghan Air Force operates 28 MD 530F Cayuse Warrior light attack helicopters, essentially a militarised civilian variant developed by MD Helicopters. In like manner, Saudi Arabia is reported to have accepted 24 Boeing AH-6i light attack and reconnaissance helicopters.
Following a $4.2 billion arms deal with Russia in 2012, the Iraqi armed forces received the final batch of Mi-28NE Night Hunter helicopters in mid-2016. The Iraqi Defence Ministry indicated the helicopters will support ground forces “in their operations aimed at targeting terrorist positions”. In a statement, the Ministry said: “These machines have improved manoeuvrability and striking precision, [being] equipped with different kinds of missiles and a mobile gun.”
Russian media reported that the contract was implemented by Rostvertol, part of Russian Helicopters, which manufactures Mi-35M and Mi-28NE combat helicopters, as well as Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters.
Earlier reports revealed that Iraq would take delivery of 43 combat helicopters by 2016 (24 Mi-35M and 19 Mi-28NE helicopters).
IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly last year reported the US government’s approval of helicopter sales to Middle East customers. The $7 billion packages involve 48 Boeing heavy-lift CH-47F Chinooks to Saudi Arabia and 28 remanufactured and nine new-build AH-64E Apache attack helicopters to the UAE.
Another Gulf state that has signed for Apache helicopters is Qatar.
Doha News announced the 2016 contract for 24 helicopters, on the heels of a $11 billion arms deal in 2014 – despite domestic budgetary cuts. Qatar is involved in military operations in both Yemen and Syria as part of the anti-Daesh coalition.
Recently, Airbus Helicopters announced a contract with Kuwait for the procurement of 30 Caracal H225M medium-lift helicopters as part of a €2.5 billion package, which includes pilot training, electronic combat system and air-to-ground missiles, to which the countries agreed in 2015. Kuwait operates several Airbus Helicopter types, including the SA342 Gazelle, besides Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters. Airbus Helicopters, Bell Helicopter and Leonardo are offering replacements for the soon to be retired Gazelle to meet Kuwait’s light utility requirement.
Bell Helicopters, which has had a regional office in Abu Dhabi since 2015, sold 16 new Bell 407GXs to BBM Inc of Reno, Nevada, configured for casualty evacuation and reconnaissance missions in the Middle East. Subsequently, the 407GT armed version of the 407GX was also sold to BBM to operate in the Middle East and Africa, mainly on law enforcement and homeland security missions.
NorthStar Aviation of Abu Dhabi is well advanced in providing the UAE Armed Forces with 30 Bell 407MRHs.
This helicopter is a multi-role armed ISR variant based on a standard civilian 407GXP, which NorthStar has developed with the full support of Bell Helicopters. One of the UAE Armed Forces 407MRH helicopters was displayed at SOFEX in Jordan last year. Jordan’s military operates Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and Bell AH-1F Cobra gunships.
Bell found Turkey as lucrative a market, with 50 per cent market share in the past five years. The company has 26 of its Bell 429s operating there, notably with the Turkish National Police, which finds them ideal for law-enforcement operations.
Sikorsky, now part of Lockheed Martin, also boasts a successful relationship in the Middle East, with around 400 helicopters in the region and a regional office in Abu Dhabi, where it is partnered with Mubadala. Anand Stanley, Sikorsky’s vicepresident for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa, was reported as saying modernisation of existing fleets will grow the number of Sikorsky helicopters in the region. Sikorsky’s S-76D is now offered with improved performance and range but with lower external and internal noise, having been fitted with a ‘silencer’ wall panel system for the eight-passenger VIP/executive interior.
With the aim of properly evaluating the helicopter segment of the Middle East’s aviation sector, the first ever Dubai HeliConference will be held in April 2017, with Abu Dhabi hosting another major regional helicopter event next February.