In March 2017 French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that the Airbus Helicopters H160M Guepard had been selected as the future rotary-wing platform for all three of the nations armed services. Two years on from this announcement we’re going to take a look at whether or not it’s going to be the revolution some are expecting, or a damp squib of an evolution.
One thing that must be stated as early as possible is the extreme scope of the program. The base platform is expected to replace six different types of helicopter currently in service; the French Navy’s Alouette IIIs, Dauphins and Panthers, Air Force Fennecs and Pumas, and Army Pumas, Gazelles and Fennecs. Attempting to replace so many different types with a single one has its obvious advantages yet it is yet to be seen if this will be the classic “jack of all trades, master of none” situation.
When we take a look at some of the basic numbers there are glaringly obvious issues when it comes to the performance of the type. When comparing the civilian variant with the civilian AgustaWestland AW139 and military AW159 Wildcat the lack of usable weight is going to be a major concern for an aircraft which is expected to replace medium helicopters in the battlefield transport role. Many air arms wouldn’t replace the Puma with the AW139 due to the step down in usable weight (around 3,400kg for the AW139 vs 3,500kg for the Puma) so understanding why the French are prepared to take the step down to an aircraft that has a usable weight of only around 1800kg is extremely difficult. Even the AW159, which is very rarely used in any sort of battlefield utility role has nearly a metric ton more usable weight.
With all that being said many of the roles the aircraft will replace the smaller rotorcraft in seem perfectly suited to a smaller aircraft. Maritime attack, battlefield reconnaissance and combat search and rescue are not missions which require a large aircraft and in fact a smaller aircraft has the obvious advantages with regards to RCS and visual signature.
Airbus Helicopters are continuing to push the project as revolutionary but when compared to other projects such as the
US Army’s Future Vertical Lift there seems to be nothing seriously revolutionary going on other than the usage of techniques and technologies from the A350 program. The closest European program in magnitude in terms of replacing large numbers of battlefield helicopters with a single type was the UK’s Future Lynx program, since name Wildcat in service. This cannot however be seen as a direct comparison due to the fact that the UK program was essentially to allow for the continued use of a proven basepoint until a longer-term replacement could be decided upon (that is, at least how it comes across). Whether or not bringing a conventional helicopter to the market in a time when we are looking to what’s beyond the conventional helicopter on the battlefield will be the right idea remains to be seen. Given the continued longevity of existing systems whether or not Airbus manage to fill the order book will be the ultimate way to judge the programs success.
Nick Ashwell-Rice has worked in aviation and defence journalism since 2014 whilst also maintaining a career outside of the industry. He has been Editor-in-Chief at Talking Aero since its inception