A multinational programme centred around the NH90 combat helicopter will begin to upgrade the platform to a ‘Block I’ standard, also referred to as Software Release 3 (SWR3).

Primary manufacturer and European joint venture NH Industries – the main contractor for the Nato Helicopter Management Agency – will begin the process for both variants, the tactical transport helicopter (TTH) and the Nato frigate helicopter (NFH).

On the verge of reaching 20-years of active service, beginning in 2007, the platform will move onto the next stage of life with newly integrated systems.

The first phase of this €600m ($642.9m) programme includes an upgrade of the NH90 communication suite and the integration of Data Link 22 – Nato’s secure digital radio link – allowing beyond line-of-sight interoperability without going through satellite communications.

An Identification Friend or Foe Mod 5 Level 2 solution (the latest version of the device used to identify and track military aircraft) will also be integrated.

Other upgrades will be available to the operators and include the integration of a latest generation electro optical system, a new dipping sonar and the integration of the Mk54 torpedo and MBDA’s Marte ER anti-ship missile. The NH90 Block 1 will be able to navigate with a civil grade global navigation satellite system and flight management system. 

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The second phase of the programme, which is currently under finalisation, will consist of the deployment of the Block 1 configuration improvements on approximately 200 NH90s, both NFH and TTH, in total.

NH90 existing features

More than 500 helicopters have been delivered to 18 customers in 14 countries by the end of 2023 according to Airbus, one of the three shareholders in the joint venture. Just under half of these platforms will be upgraded as part of the second phase of the new Block I programme.

Originally, the NH90 programme included the immediate production commitment of 366 helicopters, while the total production requirement was 595 units.

NH90 landing on offshore patrol vessel Ms. Zeeland with mixed Dutch and Belgian crew, 11 February 2016. Credit: Dutch Ministry of the Defence.

The core vehicle for the TTH and NFH versions is a twin-engine rotorcraft incorporating innovative features such as advanced mission flight aids and a fly-by-wire control system with an advanced 4-axis autopilot, along with a full mission-oriented integrated system.

Benefitting from a modern approach to materials, the NH90’s composite fuselage has fewer parts and a lower structural weight, resulting in 30% more endurance compared to a metallic fuselage, plus increased resistance to battle damage, among other benefits. The composite rotor blades have greater fatigue strength, damage tolerance and component lifetimes, as well as improved aerodynamic performance.

A product of European industry

The European Union (EU) and its security arm, the European Defence Agency, have become tunnel-visioned when it comes to cultivating a more prosperous European defence industrial base. So much that an inaugural industrial strategy was laid out in March this year alongside the allocation of €1.5bn funds.

As a proven combat helicopter, the NH90 may prove to be a useful platform for exporting and interoperability with allies and partners. It can already count Australia, Finland, Greece, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Qatar, Spain and Sweden among its users.