Norway - NH90
On 10 June 2022 Norway terminated the two-decade-old contract for 14 NH90 medium-lift helicopters with NATO Helicopter Industries (NHI), the Airbus-led consortium of European aircraft and defense contractors, citing 20 years of frustration with the delays, errors, and time-consuming maintenance.
Norway’s acquisition of the NH90 began in 2001, with 14 helicopters for Coast Guard and Anti-Submarine Warfare duties originally slated for delivery by the end of 2008. As of today, only eight have been delivered in a fully operational configuration. The fleet is currently required to provide 3,900 flight hours annually but in recent years it has averaged only about 700 hours.
NH90 has been developed through a European development program, for a helicopter in two basic versions: One for land operations, and one for maritime operations. The helicopter is classified as a medium-weight, twin-engine helicopter with a maximum take-off weight of 11,000 kg.
France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany and the respective national aviation industry under the leadership of NATO Helicopter Industries (NHI) have organized into a customer organization (NAHEMA) and a supplier organization (NATO Helicopter Industries), both located in Aix-en-Provence, France. As of January 2019, another 10 nations have procured NH90 and so far more than 380 helicopters have been delivered.
Norway is currently outside NAHEMA, but is involved in cooperation with other NH90 nations in a number of areas, both in the development phase and in the operational phase of the helicopters. The Norwegian helicopters are produced in Leonardo's production facility in Tessera, Italy.
Norway’s state auditor general’s office, meanwhile, claimed as early as four years ago that the Norwegian defense department must take its share of responsibility. “The supplier has a great deal of responsibility for the delays, but the Defense Ministry, the Defense Department (the administrative arm) and Defense Material haven’t followed up the acquisition well enough,” the auditor wrote in 2018.
No fewer than seven Norwegian defense ministers plus top military brass faced lots of questions in January 2019, over yet another scandal involving faulty and highly expensive equipment procurement. Helicopters ordered back in 2001 and costing NOK 11 billion won’t be in full service until 2025. Three days of open hearings at the Parliament began 28 January 2019 into the helicopters that have been plaguing Norway’s governments since 2000. That’s when Defense Minister Bjørn Tore Godal of the Labour Party was supposed to have finished negotiations for and quality-checked the purchase of 14 NH90 “multi-purpose” helicopters. Not a single Norwegain defense minister over the past 18 years was willing to take responsibility at hearings this week into the country’s expensive and deeply troubled NH90 helicopters. The politicians blamed defense officials, who in turn blamed the helicopters’ Italian producer.
The sole alternative to the NH90 helicopter, the US-made Sikorsky Sea Hawk, was not deemed as meeting Norwegian demands for operations in rough seas and weather in the far north. Defense officials dimissed a comment that the Danish coast guard uses Sea Hawks along the coast of Greenland, with current defense chief Bruun Hanssen claiming the Sea Hawks still wouldn’t have been acceptable because they wouldn’t be able to float if forced to land at sea.
The Norwegian Ministry of Defence in February 2022 requested that the Armed Forces, along with the Norwegian Defence Materiel Agency and the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, conduct a comprehensive review of Norway’s maritime helicopter capabilities. The review concluded that even with significant additional financial investments, it would not be possible to bring the performance and availability of the NH90 to a level that would meet Norwegian requirements.
“Regrettably we have reached the conclusion that no matter how many hours our technicians work, and how many parts we order, it will never make the NH90 capable of meeting the requirements of the Norwegian Armed Forces,” said Norwegian Minister of Defence, Bjørn Arild Gram, in a statement released on 10 June. “Based on a joint recommendation by the Armed Forces and associated departments and agencies, the Norwegian Government has therefore decided to end the introduction of the NH90 and has authorized the Norwegian Defence Material Agency to terminate the contract.”
Producer NHindustries, however, claimed Norway can’t break the contract and that it’s “extremely disappointed” in the Norwegian defense department. NHindustries of France, which produced the helicopters in cooperation with its Italian partner Leonardo Helicopters, also rejected Norway’s complaints about the NH90 helicopters and the company, claiming they had no legal basis. That suggests lawsuits loom after a long history of trouble with the helicopters that Norway now plans to send in return to NHindustries.
NHindustries denies that, claiming that the company never got an opportunity to discuss a proposal to improve the NH90s in Norway, or address Norwegian demands. The company claimed the 14th helicopter is now ready for approval, meaning the “main portion” of its initial contract with Norway was close to being fulfilled.
There’s no question that delivery of the NH90s was chronically delayed. The first helicopter was due in 2005 with all expected to be in place by 2008. Instead the first NH90 helicopter didn’t arrive until 2011 and wasn’t operative until 2017. Another six are still only in a “preliminary version”.
Frank Bakke-Jensen, defense minister in the former Conservatives-led government, has called the order for the NH90 “a catastrophic project,” but some Norwegian officers and defense employees have also claimed that the helicopter problems aren’t only tied to their supplier. A lack of coordination among various agencies within the defense department and ministry has also created operating problems, Torbjørn Bongo, leader of a federation representing officers (Norges Offisers- og Spesialistforbund), told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
Bongo was frustrated, claiming his employee organization didn’t get a chance to comment on the fate of the helicopters. He’s always been skeptical towards breaking the contract, because “we haven’t done our part of the job well enough,” either in organizing or coordinating. “We have lots of various players in the picture,” he told NRK. “You can’t expect, for example, to have reserve parts ready if no one has ordered them or jas authority to pay for them.” Bongo thinks “internal problems” within the defense department have contributed to the unhappy situation and that the helicopters have finally begun to function. “I’m critical that we haven’t had a chance to put that forward to the government.”
The Norwegian Defence Material Agency subsequently informed the manufacturer of the NH90, NATO Helicopter Industries (NHI), that it has terminated the contract in its entirety, and that it will be seeking full restitution of all funds and assets received by both parties. The Agency will now begin preparations to return the helicopters along with any spares and equipment received. It will also request a refund from NHI, which will include the approximately NOK five billion it has paid under the contract, in addition to interest and other expenses.
"We have made repeated attempts at resolving the problems related to the NH90 in cooperation with NHI, but more than 20 years after the contract was signed, we still don’t have helicopters capable of performing the missions for which they were bought, and without NHI being able to present us with any realistic solutions,"" said Gro Jære, Director General of the Norwegian Defence Materiel Agency.
"This is the right decision for the NH90 and for our maritime helicopter capability, and in line with our recommendation,"" said Norwegian Chief of Defence, General Eirik Kristoffersen.
Due to the contract termination, Norwegian flight operations with the NH90 will be discontinued, and any planned future missions will be cancelled. Any Armed Forces personnel affected by the termination will receive immediate follow-up through their respective units.
"I am impressed by the efforts made by our organization and everyone who have worked so hard to make the NH90 deliver. This has not been a question of lack of effort, creativity, and skill, but quite simply that we have received a helicopter that has not been able to deliver. Also, even though we are now moving on from the NH90, we still need the support of those who have been working on the helicopter. My priority now is therefore to take care of everyone who has worked on the NH90,"" said General Kristoffersen.
The Norwegian Ministry of Defence will shortly begin the process of identifying an alternative maritime helicopter. "Norway continues to have a requirement for maritime helicopters, and it is therefore essential that we quickly begin preparations to fill the capability gap left by the NH90. We will consider several alternative approaches to meeting our operational requirements, but we must be prepared for the fact that there will be no easy solutions," said Minister of Defence Bjørn Arild Gram.
He also praises the efforts of everyone within the Norwegian Armed Forces and the Norwegian Defence Material Agency who have worked on the NH90. "I hope that many of them will also be able to join us as we work to identify the best way of addressing our continuing maritime helicopter requirements," said Minister of Defence Gram.
The government is now considering leasing other helicopters to replace the NH90s, perhaps from NATO allies, so that Norwegian coast guard vessels and frigates will finally have some helicopter service. That’s because it can take up to at least five years to order and take delivery of new helicopters.
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