Posted: Sun 24th Jul 2022

Call for “fair and open competition” in race to win £1.2bn MoD helicopter contract for Airbus Broughton

News and Info from Deeside, Flintshire, North Wales
This article is old - Published: Sunday, Jul 24th, 2022

A local MP has called for a “fair and open competition” in the race to win a £1.2 billion Ministry of Defense (MoD) contract to replace the RAF’s fleet of Puma 2 helicopters and three other types of chopper operated by the British Army.

Politicians, business and industry leaders gathered in Broughton on Friday to see Airbus Helicopters’ new H175M multirole, battlefield rotorcraft land on the grass football pitch outside the new Wings Club.

The UK Government launched a competition in May for the New Medium Helicopter (NMH) programme which could see up to 44 H175M helicopters purchased from Airbus by the MoD and with it a potential jobs boost for the Broughton plant.

The H175M is designed to cover a wide range of typical missions such as Utility/Troop transport, Special Operations, Medical Evacuation, Command Control and Combat SAR, depending on the list of mission optional items the customer selects.

The contract also includes five years of support, from the training of new pilots, aircrew and instructors to logistical and service support.

Broughton production facility

The size of the prize locally goes beyond the value of the MoD contract.

The creation of an H175M production facility at Broughton is a critical part of the Airbus proposal to the UK Government, maximising social value from the project.

A new H175M manufacturing facility at Airbus Broughton will have the potential to bring hundreds of highly skilled new jobs to the region both directly and within the supply chain.

Speaking to Airbus officials on Friday it is not altogether clear how much work will be carried out at Broughton if the bid is successful.

The base H175 helicopter is made in France, but Lenny Brown, the boss of Airbus Helicopters UK and former Commanding Officer of the Commando Helicopter Force, said “Broughton will be a production line, parts will come in and aircraft will come out the other end.”

Lenny Brown, who has flown the H175M himself said the most complicated aspect of the H175M “isn’t the helicopter itself, It’s all the mission systems, communication systems, defensive aid suites, weapon systems, and so on. Airbus is “pretty exceptional at the militarisation of helicopters.” He said.

Head of Airbus Broughton plant Jerome Blandin (left) Alyn and Deeside Mp Marl Tami (right)

Airbus faces stiff competition for the contract, Leonardo is offering its AW149 which is already in operation with the Egyptian Navy, the Royal Thai Army and the Polish Army recently ordered 32 of them.

The competitors 

Like Airbus, Leonardo’s bid centres around a strong social value offering, Its AW149 will be built in Yeovil, Somerset and around 70 UK companies will benefit from the supply chain.

American aerospace manufacturers are also in the running for the NMH contract, Bell is offering its 525 Relentless; Lockheed Martin the S-70M Black Hawk and AceHawk Aerospace are offering pre-owned and upgraded Black Hawk variants, though the company is UK based.

The UK Government will announce the NMH winner in 2023 with the first delivery and entry into service in 2025 in what has been described as an “accelerated schedule.”

That does however depend on the MoD’s timetable for retiring and replacing the Puma which has not yet been fully announced.

During Friday’s event, Alyn and Deeside MP Mark Tami called on local politicians from all sides to get fully behind the Airbus bid.

Airbus is already an important helicopter supplier to the UK armed forces with the Puma, the workhorse of the RAF and the Dauphin which is used by UK Special Forces.

Airbus also provides the H135 and H145 aircraft for the UK Ministry of Defence Military Flying Training System, meaning that for more than half a century, every helicopter pilot in the UK has been trained on an Airbus Helicopter.

Fair competition! 

But Airbus has been bumped by wonky UK Government procurement competitions in the past.

The Wedgetail aircraft programme was slammed by MPs a few years ago, they were unhappy about the lack of competition to replace the RAF’s existing Sentry aircraft – known as its “eye in the sky”.

The MoD entered “exclusive” talks with US planemaker Boeing over the purchase of its E7 ‘Wedgetail’ surveillance planes.

Airbus offered the MoD a cheaper alternative solution based on its A330 jet and Saab’s Erieye radar, they considered mounting a legal challenge after being denied the opportunity to compete for the contract.

At the time, Mark Tami said it was a “real slap in the face” for Airbus as the UK Government had opted for Boeing.

On Friday the Deeside MP said that if we have “a fair and open competition, we can win this for Broughton and for North Wales, securing jobs, bringing new jobs and jobs for young people as well.”

He said: “Let’s all work together and campaign together, cross-party, north Wales, north-west, to make sure that we bring this product to Broughton and we will work together with Airbus, Airbus Helicopters and Unite Union to make sure that it happens for us in north Wales.”

Lenny Brown said that should Airbus win the MoD contract, the helicopter division will use Airbus Broughton as it is “quite a short timeline, in terms of a helicopter programme from standing start to first deliveries, so leveraging the skilled workforce will be really important.”

Huge export opportunity  

Airbus is also looking at global opportunities with the H175M and estimates there could be a need for up to 500 helicopters in the Medium/Super Medium category worldwide.

Those again could be built at the Broughton production facility, “creating a sustainable programme for years to come” but, if the MoD does not award Airbus the NMH contract, that work would go abroad.

Lenny Brown said, “obviously a helicopter programme of this complexity and scale is a growth thing, it doesn’t just pop, it doesn’t just start from the full complement of people and technicians.”

“Should we win the contract, we will start training up and recruiting individuals for the specialist skills that are required for the production line, the test and evaluation, and all the other specialist capabilities that are required to make this machine.”

“Obviously you don’t start with a huge number of aircraft, there will be an increasing ramp so that you will start off with the 10s and 20s of jobs, and then it goes into the hundreds.”

The H175M can comfortably carry 16 troops or 12 commandos with tactical gear, says Airbus

The civil variant of the H175 is “by far the most capable super medium aircraft on the market” Airbus said with 50 flying all around the world logging more than 130,000 flight hours, 26 are already in daily North Sea operations off the coast of the UK.

H175M is significantly different from the civil H175, It features military customisation such as the addition of electro-optic/infrared sensors and self-defence countermeasures and a military interior among others.

Winning the initial MoD order for Airbus would be seen as a “flagship” by the rest of the world, “we’ve got pretty exceptional relationships with all sorts of countries and as a platform to export from the UK it would be strategically important not just for Airbus Helicopters but for “global Britain.” Lenny Brown said.

Broughton was considered to be the obvious candidate taking into account available facilities and the available pool of skilled workers.

The specialised helicopter design process will be largely undertaken by the team at Airbus Helicopters in the UK at Oxford.

Broughton workforce

Head of Airbus Broughton plant Jerome Blandin said “our strength is in industrial systems, new development and the challenges of developing new technology.”

“As we grow potentially in the future, we can really leverage what we do in the local area in terms of working with some of the industry players and looking at further expanding apprentice numbers in the future.”

As well as new recruits, Jerome Blandin said it will be “really exciting to provide that opportunity for some of the existing workforce “to learn new skills.”

Jerome Blandin was unable to put a definitive figure on how many jobs would be created at Broughton if Airbus Helicopters succeeds with the bid, “we need to understand the scope in terms of what the contract requirements would be.” He said.

Hawarden Air Cadets had the opportunity to speak to one of the H175M test pilots

“We’re going to be working extremely hard to try and bring this helicopter to Broughton,” said Unite’s Senior Trade Union Representative at Airbus Broughton, Darren Reynolds.

He said, “It’s been difficult for the last few years with the impact of Covid on the industry, we lost some jobs, but were coming back now and getting the H175M contract would be fantastic for Airbus in Broughton.”

“We have a highly skilled workforce here and this is another exciting opportunity for people in north west and north east Wales to test their skills.” Darren said.

“The bid is obviously in its infancy but if we can get this work in, we would not only be producing the H175M for the MoD but also for export.”

“The work would develop even more diversity in what we do here at Broughton and help protect the site.” Darren said.

“As I said to government ministers the other day, we are a good bet here at Broughton, we do exactly what we’re supposed to do, on time and at the right cost.”

“So to get something like the H175M would be extremely exciting, we need to do everything possible to try and make sure we get this aircraft.” He said.


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