NH90 Special Operations Helicopter Begins Flight Testing

A new special forces version of the pan-European NH90 helicopter has begun flight testing. The NH90 Standard 2 is being developed specifically for the French Army and represents one of the latest and most advanced versions of the multirole medium helicopter. French backing of the NH90 Standard 2 also provides a welcome boost for the wider program, which has been rocked by problems, with several customers having decided to withdraw their NH90s after only a few years of service.

Airbus Helicopters, one of the partners in the NHIndustries (NHI) manufacturing company that was set up to build the NH90, announced today that the flight test campaign for the French Army’s prototype NH90 Standard 2 has been launched. These tests will validate the design of the latest configuration, which incorporates numerous advanced features absent from the baseline model.

Another view of the prototype for the French Army’s NH90 Standard 2 special forces helicopter. Airbus Helicopters

Flight testing will continue until the end of the year, Airbus says, based on a schedule agreed with the French Armament General Directorate (Direction Générale de l’Armement) — France’s defense procurement and technology agency.

New avionics found in the Standard 2 helicopter are optimized for the highly demanding special forces role. These include an integrated Safran Euroflir 410 electro-optical system and a new 3D digital map generator. Modifications to the Euroflir turret, fitted below the nose, allow it to be controlled from both cockpit displays and on tablets, meaning that commandos in the cabin can also gain situational awareness right up until egress. A prominent radome is also seen on its nose, which likely contains a multi-function radar unit capable of terrain following for low-level interdiction missions.

The prototype has mechanical and electrical provisions for a Distributed Aperture System (DAS) and a new-generation Helmet Mounted Sight Digital Display (HMSD-DD) to replace the current Thales TopOwl.

The planned DAS, broadly similar to the system found on the F-35 stealth fighter, comprises an array of fixed infrared cameras feeding a spherical augmented reality video feed into the HMSD-DD.

Neither the DAS or HMSD-DD are currently fitted, but they would clearly have huge benefits for special operations missions, especially those flown at night.

While the standard French Army NH90 is operated by a two-person crew, the Standard 2 is adapted to accommodate a third crew member. Among their duties is helping to operate the two FN Herstal M3M 50-caliber machine guns — known to the U.S. military as the GAU-21 — that can be fitted in the enlarged rear sliding doors in the helicopter’s cabin.

Other features of the Standard 2 special forces helicopter include provisions to get commandos out of the cabin more rapidly, via a central rappelling system integrated with a modified rear ramp. Rapidly removable doors and foldable steps make it easier for troops to rappel from both the rear ramp — which can now be operated in flight — and the side doors.

Meanwhile, for longer-range missions, the NH90 Standard 2 can be fitted with a pair of 500-kilogram (1,102-pound) external fuel tanks.

Airbus has not announced specific new self-protection features for the Standard 2, although that would not be a surprise considering the kinds of environments it’s expected to operate in. Already, the basic NH90 TTH can be fitted with laser and radar warning receivers, a missile launch detection system, and chaff/flare dispensers. The NH90’s diamond-shaped composite airframe is claimed to provide the lowest radar signature in its class, while infrared suppression devices and vertical engine air intakes further contribute to a reduced signature.

An NH90 releases infrared countermeasures flares. NHI

“The new features provide a substantial increase in the helicopter’s mission capability and clearly position the NH90 as one of the world’s most advanced tactical troop carriers, particularly in challenging conditions such as sand, snow, or fog,” Airbus Helicopters said at the time the program was launched with a formal French commitment, in 2020.

Originally, the NH90 Standard 2 program called for the development of the new version and then the conversion of 10 of the French Army’s existing NH90 Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) helicopters to the special forces configuration. At the time, deliveries were expected to take place in 2025 and 2026, but the current schedule is unclear.

In December last year, the French Ministry of Defense ordered eight more NH90 TTHs to be completed in the Standard 2 configuration, for a total of 18 dedicated special forces helicopters.

By the end of the decade, the French Army is scheduled to operate 81 NH90 TTHs. A first example was first delivered in 2011 and 63 have been handed over so far. These were first deployed on operations in Mali in 2014. At the same time, the French Navy operates the NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) version, 27 of which were ordered.

All these helicopters are known by the Caïman name in French service.

The NH90 Standard 2 special forces rotorcraft will serve with the 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment (4e Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales) based at Pau in the Pyrenees region of southwest France. The unit worked closely in the design definition phase of the helicopter, and it currently operates a fleet of medium (SA330 Puma, AS532 Cougar, EC725 Caracal) and light (SA342 Gazelle) helicopters plus Tigre attack helicopters.

The regiment saw extensive combat in the shadowy Operation Sabre, the French special forces mission based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, that ran concurrently with the much more high-profile Operation Barkhane, France’s anti-insurgent mission in Africa’s Sahel region that lasted from 2014 to 2022.

A French soldier from the Barkhane mission in Africa's Sahel region, points a machine gun from a NH90 helicopter between Gao and Menaka, Mali, on March 21, 2019. - French and British chiefs of staff took part in a joint visit to Mali to show their common strategic vision facing the challenges in West Africa. (Photo by Daphné BENOIT / AFP) (Photo by DAPHNE BENOIT/AFP via Getty Images)
A French soldier from the Barkhane mission in Africa’s Sahel region operates a machine gun on an NH90 during a flight between Gao and Menaka, Mali, on March 21, 2019. Photo by DAPHNE BENOIT/AFP via Getty Images DAPHNE BENOIT

Since then, the focus of the French Army has shifted back toward Europe, spurred by the war in Ukraine and the destabilizing effect of Russia-NATO tensions across Europe.

Considering the slim margin for error and the huge demands of rotary-wing special forces operations, French confidence in the NH90 Standard 2 is significant.

When the NH90 program was launched back in the mid-1980s, the plan was for the two main variants — TTH and NFH — to cover a wide range of missions for a diverse group of operators. Production helicopters would flow from three production lines, in France, Germany, and Italy, to meet demands.

SAINT CHELY D'APCHER, FRANCE - OCTOBER 21: Soldiers from the 2nd regiment of Foreign Legion infantry disembark from a NH-90 Caiman to secure the surroundings of the city before their assault during the 2021 Baccarat training session on October 21, 2021 in Saint- Chely-d’Apcher, France.The 5th edition of the Baccarat high intensity combat training brings together 15 units, 1300 soldiers and 32 helicopters. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)
Soldiers from the French Foreign Legion disembark from an NH90 during the 2021 Baccarat training exercise on October 21, 2021, in Saint-Chely-d’Apcher, France. Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images Aurelien Meunier

While cost overruns and delays are a familiar part of any modern military aircraft program, in the case of the NH90 there were compounded by the differing requirements of the individual customers. As more operators came on board, many required specific configurations with the end result that there are multiple iterations of the NH90 above and beyond the original baseline versions.

In the process, it seems more delays and technical shortcomings were built into the program, leaving several customers feeling shortchanged.

Australia’s sorry saga with the NH90 is something that TWZ has reported on extensively in the past. After service entry in 2007, the Australian NH90 proved to be very problematic to operate effectively and, after a fatal crash, the government decided last year to withdraw the 45 surviving airframes, and instead switch over completely to the U.S.-made UH-60M Black Hawk. Despite interest in the NH90s from Ukraine, the Australian deliberately destroyed the billion-dollar aircraft fleet, literally burying the remnants under the ground.

Scrapped NH90
Reports that the Australian Army was deliberately scrapping its troublesome NH90 Tactical Transport Helicopters were confirmed to The War Zone earlier this year. Uncredited Uncredited

In a similar story, Norway canceled its NH90 contract and permanently grounded its entire 13-strong fleet in 2022, citing the helicopter’s abysmal operational availability. According to the Norwegian Ministry of Defense, only eight of its NH90 NFHs arrived in a fully operational configuration. While the fleet was required to fly 3,900 hours a year, it averaged just 700 hours annually. Instead, Oslo is buying MH-60R Seahawks.

Belgium, meanwhile, which operates four NH90 TTHs and four NFHs, plans were announced in 2020 to phase out of the TTHs on the grounds of high operating costs and low availability. These will be replaced by some of the 15 Airbus H145M helicopters, a Belgian contract for which was announced yesterday.

Sweden has also been less than satisfied with its NH90s, of which it took nine each of the TTH and NFH, albeit modified to meet local requirements for specific search and rescue and anti-submarine warfare roles, respectively. Delays in getting the TTHs fully operational led to Sweden ordering 15 UH-60M Black Hawks as a stopgap, while in November 2022 the country revealed plans to replace its NH90 NFHs entirely. The expectation is that it will buy more UH-60Ms; last month, the U.S. State Department approved a possible Foreign Military Sale to Sweden of 12 additional Black Hawks.

Among the operators that have decided to stick with the NH90, there has also been a catalog of issues with the helicopters.

In Finland, there have been reports in the past of serious reliability issues, shortages of spare parts, and plummeting availability. In Germany, a leaked report in 2020 revealed that just 12 percent of its NH90 TTHs were mission-capable. The Netherlands in 2014 decided not to accept the last batch of NH90 NFHs it ordered, after identifying around 100 shortcomings, which NHI had to address before deliveries restarted.

Other operators have had considerably fewer problems with their NH90 fleets although, overall, the picture is very much mixed.

Meanwhile, the demand for special forces-capable helicopters is only likely to be increased by the continued tensions between NATO and Russia and it’s notable that Western operators are increasingly adopting more sophisticated rotorcraft capable of missions in high-threat environments, including combat search and rescue and special operations.

As a standalone solution, the NH90 Standard 2 may well find interest among customers looking for helicopters to fulfill more demanding missions, not restricted to the support of special forces. On the other hand, the NH90’s large existing user base means that current operators might well seek to upgrade their TTHs to the Standard 2 configuration, or at least port over some of the new capabilities. This will become much more compelling if and when the full set of improvements — including the Distributed Aperture System and Helmet Mounted Sight Digital Display — become available.

Much now rests on the fortunes of the NH90 Standard 2 and NHI may very well hope that success with the version could mark a much-needed turning point for the troubled helicopter.

Contact the author: thomas@thewarzone.com

Thomas Newdick Avatar

Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.