2010/03/28

Military Helicopter prices and choices

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I did recently look into the prices for helicopters - for example the very expensive NH90 TTH and as low-cost helicopters the Indian HAL Druv and the old Bell 412EP.

My initial prejudice was that the new helicopters are (NH90) are too expensive for their performance.
Well, it turned out that their price may be justified by the raw published specs in comparison to Western alternative designs. The NH90 offers a good payload (in weight), high speed and greater abilities in difficult conditions.
That's a very superficial guesstime, though. A complete coparison of such ahrdware would yield a study of 100+ pages and include findings about details such as the hardening of fuel lines .

There's still an unpleasant feeling about these high tech helicopters. Air transport is usually not that much limited by payload (in tons) as it is by cabin area and seats.
We could buy a larger fleet of AB412EP and would obviously end up with a larger troop transport capacity in terms of a "(men * distance) / 24 hrs" metric.
Quantity is also a quality in its own right; a few losses can seriously impair a small high-performance fleet (think of the Atlantic Conveyor in the Falklands War which sunk with three of only four Chinook helicopters of the invasion force).

A NH90 is on the other hand quite obviously more survivable than a AB412EP in a 1:1 comparison - this is an amplified advantage in small wars.

The old Bell 412EP has furthermore a very maintenance-intensive rotor head design (outdated for decades) that would probably be replaced with a better one (elastomeric bearings as in NH90) if the helicopter was procured by an Army like the German one.
The same applies to the Mi-17; both Cold War classics are nevertheless prie examples for proven & relatively low-cost tactical transport helicopters. I would without hesitation advise armies to buy such models if they don't pursue a high-tech strategy as do forces of rich nations.
Let me lift a quote from Wikipedia:

Flight International quotes the Thai army’s rationale: “We are buying three Mi-17 helicopters for the price of one Black Hawk. The Mi-17 can also carry more than 30 troops, while the Black Hawk could carry only 13 soldiers. These were the key factors behind the decision.”

...and the Black Hawk isn't even an example of the priciest, latest helicopter generation!

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There IS a problem, though: HAL Druv, Mi-17, Bell 412EP - these aren't really low-cost helicopters. Their price is still in the millions. These designs are merely low-tech by today's standards.

The true low-cost helicopters are in the six-digit range - such as the Robinson R44 (you can buy more than 30 R44 for the price of one NH90!).


We've become so accustomed to orthodox military helicopters that the thought of an R44 as a useful military helicopter has become "strange". You might have that feeling as well and look at the twice as expensive, higher performance R66 instead. It's still a bargain.

A look at the Bell 47 can ease the unplesant feeling as well: It evacuated 21,000 WIA soldiers as MedEvac helicopter in Korea and meant the breakthrough for helicopters in military service. The R44 is actually much more capable than a Bell 47.


You don't need more than an R44 equivalent for many liaison flights, for observing a brigade's road march from the air, for MedEvac (unless you insist on luxury MedEvac with on-board medical facilities and care).

The R44 is actually expensive in performance/price terms in comparison to a Mi-17, but several R44 equivalents instead of one Mi-17 have the invaluable ability to be at several locations at once. A small fleet of Mi-17 would often fly with few payload & passengers and waste much of its potential and it might be unresponsive if many small missions are deemed necessary at the same time.

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Sure, the luxury of the NH90's extra performance is tasty - and mabye a high/low mix would be advisable. You wouldn't want to MedEvac with a R44 equivalent at night, for example. On the other hand NH90 would never be able to provide affordable general MedEvac support in a full-out war and it requires a larger clearing for landing.
I fail generally to see how a NH90 could provide more bang for the buck than a Mi-17 at daylight. This inability is in my opinion a hint that the design is a poor, gold-plated one (although the Mi-17 has high operating costs and benefits of low wages in Russia).


The all-high-end strategy in military helicopter procurement looks ill-advised to me. We can never get enough helicopters for the job like that - unless we ignore the primary defence job of collective self-defence and are only concerned about small & stupid wars in distant places.


Sven Ortmann

(NH90 photo copyright see here.)
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6 comments:

  1. An issue about more cheaper helicopters is the numbers of pilots needed and the the pilot training needed. Both is expensive as well.

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  2. The Bundeswehr was founded to defend Germany in war - or even better to prevent the same. Small wars are quite or entirely unimportant - little more than political games.


    Now looking at the scenario of a classic, full-out war - and let's hope that this stays a mere scenario for a couple generations at last - what helicopter force would we use?

    The military designs would be the minority (similar tos trategic air transport and logistics trucks).

    We would draft civilian pilots and commandeer civilian craft.

    Why should our arm prepare only for the use of high-end helicopters if it would use more simple civilian equipment mostly in case of war?

    The Cold War is over, we're no more an alliance frontier nation. Our country wouldn't become a battlefield before we could enlist civilian experts and commandeer civilian craft.


    The present high-end strategy as it is being executed doesn't make sense for small wars either. The helicopters are late, very late - and we would never need that many (as few as they are) for our limited small war deployments. Buying a single squadron Black Hawks would make more sense if the Bundeswehr's purpose was to wage small wars.

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  3. The new NH90 seems to be a gold plated item nice to have as you said. Never the less it is reported that there are significant drawbacks in simple construction parameters also (http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/0,1518,679701,00.html). Just one more point to prefer the low end, reliable, off-the-shelf design you proposed.

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  4. AFAIK, Mi-17 doesn't hover very well, if at all. So something like a Blackhawk is better for troop insertion. But for everything else, Mi-17 gives much better bang for buck. It'd be interesting to see how its followon - Mi-38 turns out.

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  5. Sven, there's one thing you will have to accept and that is helicopters cost millions, its the way it is.

    Helicopters like the R44 etc are very cheap because they are very basic. The Bell 47G is also very cheap, it was very good in Korea but in Vietnam it was shot to pieces like a sitting duck. That is why the US embarked on a replacement programme that resulted in the OH-6 Loach and the OH-58 Kiowa. Both of which are still used today, a testament to their success, despite their additional expense.

    The fore-runner of the R66, the R22 had a nasty habit of chopping itself in two if the manouvre envelope became excessive. Not something you would wish for in a combat environment. In addition to this modern warfare demands twin engines (additional cost!), self-defence systems against MANPADS, RWR's, door gunners, communication kit etc, all of which adds weight. Put in some armoured seating and your R66 would never get off the ground! As for the 412EP, the Canadians are having trouble getting theirs off the ground in Afghanistan due to the hot and high conditions.

    Personally I'd utilise the 412EP and fit more powerful engines, in addition to crashworthy seating etc.

    And as for the Mi-8/17 these use 'old fashioned' methods of construction, and the developement costs on these were recouped decades ago. It will also be replaced by the Mi-38, which won't be as cheap.

    Expensive advanced technology improves survivability and availability, there's no use having 100 cheap helicopters if they've all been shot down.

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  6. There's a compromise to be made. Few and a bit more resilient helicopter or many, less resilient helicopters.

    The high-end models can easily end up being unable to meed the demand for MedEvac.

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