In June 2022, the Norwegian Ministry of Defense (MoD) cancelled its order of 14 NH-90 from NHIndustries (NHI), citing long-term procurement delays and maintenance issues with delivered models.

The contract with NHI was agreed to in 2001 and procurement was originally scheduled to be completed by 2008. However, due to production delays, extensions of the procurement timetable were negotiated, and the first airframe was not delivered until 2011. Due to mechanical issues and delays in parts procurement, the first NH-90 was not air worthy until 2017. The most recent negotiations extended delivery to 2023, and further negotiations would have been needed as NHI was not on schedule to complete delivery by that year.

Norwegian MoD cancels contract

At the point of cancellation in 2022, Norway had received only eight airframes. Norway also cited extreme mechanical deficiencies in delivered units, limiting the ability of their crews to complete missions. Ultimately, the Norwegian MoD cancelled the contract with NHI, returned the delivered airframes, and demanded a refund for the Nkr5bn ($455m) spent to date on acquisition. NHI acknowledged the mechanical issue and offered to repair all mechanical issues at cost, although they also challenged the cancellation and refund order as ‘legally groundless’.

The Norwegian government has declared that if NHI does not pay the Nkr5bn refund, the company risks being barred from future Norwegian MoD contracts. A legal case between the Norwegian MoD and NHI seems to be emerging.

Dissatisfied NHI purchasers

Norway’s cancellation decision adds to a list of dissatisfied NHI purchasers. Belgium, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand have also made decisions to cancel their NH-90 orders or phase out existing models earlier than scheduled. Notably, Australia’s decision came after an August 2023 crash which killed four servicemembers. Following this, the Australian Defense Minister ordered a grounding of all NH-90 models, citing concerns over mechanical faults, and New Zealand followed suit in a cautionary move.

Australia then decided to phase out its existing NH-90 fleet ahead of schedule. In the case of Norway, the MoD set a target of 3900 annual flight hours for its maritime helicopter force as the appropriate level to maintain force readiness, mechanical skills, and crew training. In the last decade, using the delivered NH-90 models, Norway’s maritime helicopter force only managed an average of 700 annual flight hours. Norway cited problems with the NH-90’s rear ramp, fuselage strength and corrosion, engines, and transmissions, compounded by a lack of spare parts, as limiting the use of the delivered units.

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Seahawks to the rescue

Norway’s MoD ultimately decided on cancellation and replacement of the NH-90’s with six Sikorsky SH-60 Seahawk. These will be of the MH-60R anti-submarine warfare model subtype, which carry torpedo launchers. The Nkr 12bn contracts schedules the Seahawks to be delivered between 2025 and 2027.

In this decision, the Norwegian MoD concluded that despite the costs of retraining crews on a new platform and the higher acquisition cost of the Seahawks relative to the NH-90’s, this change would ultimately be cheaper in the long run given NH-90 maintenance costs. The MoD also said the change was essential for the maritime helicopter force to achieve their mission targets, which had proved impossible with the NH-90.

Additional challenges

Until the first Seahawks are delivered in 2025, Norway will face additional challenges in its maritime helicopter force readiness goals. Currently, Norway is operating Bell 412’s, which were acquired in the 1980s and 1990s. The age of the Bell fleet has prompted Norway to approve an upgrade program for nine of its 18 airframes in 2023.

This program is expected to extend the Bell 412’s service lifespan, scheduled for retirement in 2026, by 15 years at a cost of Nkr1bn. The decision of the Norwegian MoD to upgrade the Bell 412’s goes against the recommendations of General Eirik Kristoffersen, Chief of the Norwegian Armed Forces.

In his report ‘Security in Uncertain Times’, General Kristoffersen recommended full replacement of the helicopter fleet with a single model variety to increase force capabilities and streamline supply chains.

Divisions within Norwegian MoD?

The Norwegian MoD has not yet determined if it will increase its order of Seahawks. Given the NH-90 order size was for 14 airframes, and the non-upgraded Bell 412’s will be retired in 2026, Norway will have to buy more helicopters to avoid reducing its fleet size.

Norway’s decision on upgrading the Bell 412’s indicates divisions within the Norwegian MoD over the direction of the helicopter program’s future. However, if Sikorsky can meet procurement targets and the delivered Seahawks operate as expected, it is very likely Norway will expand this contract.

NHI may not be the only one to suffer

For NHI, Norway’s cancellation does not bode well for the company’s immediate outlook. Belgium and Sweden are also considering early retirement of their NH-90 fleets, and Norway’s cancellation may influence their ultimate decisions. Australia is considering transitioning to Sikorsky Blackhawk models, like Norway’s decision. NHI is an international consortium owned by Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo SpA, and Fokker Aerostructures.

There are NHI factories and assembly sites in France, Germany, and Italy, and additional assembly sites in Finland, Spain, and Australia. This divided multinational corporate leadership contributes to NHI’s ongoing procurement dysfunctions. NHI’s leadership has acknowledged its production delay issues, and in 2021 began a two-year transformation plan to resolve production issues. This plan involved investments across the supply chain to provide a greater supply of spare parts, increasing bespoke support plans for different operator environments, and speeding up the retrofit processes for transitioning aircraft from initial training configurations to full operating capability in under two years.

However, considering the mounting challenges NHI faces in regaining customer confidence, whether these investments will suffice remains to be seen. In the wider rotorcraft industry, Norway’s NH-90 cancellation will likely negatively affect Safran S.A., which was contracted to provide helicopter engines for the order.

It is uncertain how CAE Inc., a major provider of flight training simulations, will be affected. CAE already holds contracts for training Norwegian forces to operate Sikorsky S-92’s, and appear to be very likely to receive forthcoming Seahawk training contracts.