The next steps of the UK’s New Medium Helicopter (NMH) programme will see the defence candidates offering a platform – European duo Leonardo, Airbus, and US-based Lockheed Martin – receive invitation to negotiate (ITN) notices, it has been revealed.

The NMH programme will see the acquisition a new medium-lift support helicopter to replace several existing units in the Royal Air Force and British Army, such as the Wildcat and Merlin rotorcraft.

Airbus, with its H145 design; Leonardo, with the AW149; and Lockheed Martin with the Black Hawk will now each negotiate their specific design requirements for a platform that the UK Government hopes to adopt and to spirally develop.

The number of units the MoD intend to procure is yet to be determined. Rather it will be based upon the responses and evaluation of the three concepts.

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Responding to the formal issuance of the ITN notice by the UK, Leonardo confirmed it would be putting forward its AW149 platform for the NMH programme. The company stated that more than 60% of AW149 production would take place in the UK, from its facilities in Yeovil.

NMH focus on spiral development and survivability

This procurement strategy marks the UK’s acquisition reform, addressed in the Defence Command Paper in July last year, which stated that lessons being learned from the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war informed stakeholders that “accepting 80% can deliver effective and robust capability into the hands of the users today. Waiting for 100% – the exquisite solution – may mean losing strategic advantage.”

For that reason, one point the MoD will base their decision on will be on how much each supplier will contribute to the UK defence industrial base, which is understood to account for 15% of the UK’s overall procurement decision.

Given that local workshare has been a long-understood key element of the NMH programme, Leonardo’s position in having established helicopter production lines in the UK may be considered favourably.

The majority of the AW149’s structural design was undertaken at Yeovil and the company has made a multi-million pound investment in a new AW149 production line at the site, as well as platform-specific training for the company’s helicopter engineers.

However, cost is also a factor with a UK defence budget reeling from inflation and cost overruns on strategic programmes, potentially giving options such as Lockheed Martin’s Black Hawk as an alternative. The US company estimated in September 2023 that nearly 40% of total Black Hawk production and assembly would occur in the UK.

UK Minister for Defence Procurement, James Cartlidge, subsequently stated on 27 February that the NMH programme was expected to proceed to contract award in 2025.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the US Army recently cancelled its Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) in an effort to reorientate toward cheaper uncrewed reconaissance systems and other platforms.

Additional reporting by Richard Thomas.