Political correctness produces a military lemon

I’ve known for some years that the NH-90 military helicopter, produced as a joint project by several NATO nations, has been less than satisfactory in service, and has been plagued by problems.

However, I wasn’t aware of just how many problems there were.  StrategyPage reports:

For example in 2009 the German Army conducted an evaluation of their new NH90 helicopters and found that for combat missions another model helicopter should be used whenever possible. A particular problem was the lack of ground clearance. The NH-90 could not land on a piece of ground with any obstacles higher than 16 cm (6.4 inches). That makes many battlefield landing zones problematic. That assumes you could even get on a NH90 and find a seat. The passenger seats could hold more than 110 kg (242 pounds). Combat equipment for German troops weighs 25 kg (55 pounds), meaning any soldier weighing more than 85 kg (187) has to take stuff off, put it on the floor, than quickly put it back on before exiting. Then there’s the floor, it was not very sturdy and combat troops using the helicopter for a short while cause damage that takes the helicopter out of action for repairs. Worse, there is the rear ramp. It could not support troops carrying all their equipment, making it useless for rapid exits of combat troops. There was not enough room in the passenger compartment for door gunners. There were no strap downs for larger weapons, like portable rocket launchers or anti-aircraft missiles. The passenger compartment also did not allow for carrying cargo and passengers at the same time. The winch was not sturdy enough for commandoes to perform fast roping operations. And so on.

Most of these problems have since been fixed, sort of, but the winch is still a problem. It’s so bad that only four of the 39 NH90s the army has are available for combat. Originally Germany ordered 122 NH90s at a cost of over $50 million each. Because of all the problems and continued cuts in the defense budget most of those on order were cancelled. The ten ton NH-90 can carry 21 troops or twelve casualties on stretchers, plus the crew of two. It first flew in 1995. The manufacturer is a consortium of French, German, Dutch and Italian firms, and has promised to fix all the problems. The Germans and Australians noted that, when it worked, the NH90 worked well. In 2010 Australia received eight of the 50 NH90 helicopters it ordered, and was not happy with the aircraft’s performance. The overall complaint was poor reliability, design and durability. Many more spare parts have to be stocked than was originally planned. There have been long waits to get needed spares from the manufacturer (NHIndustries). Called the MRH90 in Australian service, the experience was similar to what the Germans encountered with their NH90s.

There’s more at the link, and in Wikipedia’s discussion of problems with the NH-90.

The astonishing thing is that despite all these long-standing problems, Germany and other NATO countries have continued to buy NH-90’s, instead of canceling their contracts and looking for a better-performing helicopter.  That’s the fruit of ‘European-mindedness’.  They all got together to develop a European solution to their helicopter needs, rather than buy a one-nation solution such as the US Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk or the French-designed Eurocopter AS532 Cougar (a descendant of the Aerospatiale AS-330 Puma, with which I became very familiar during South Africa’s bush war, and which South Africa developed into the Oryx, a local equivalent of the Cougar).

Because the NH-90 is a multinational effort, there’s tremendous political pressure on the military services of the nations involved to continue to spend their money on European products rather than those from other countries.  It would be considered a political setback (to put it mildly) if they had to concede that a European-made product simply wasn’t up to the standards required for military service.  However, I’m afraid that if I were wearing uniform again, and told that I’d have to rely on NH-90’s for support, I’d be begging, borrowing and stealing anything and everything else I could lay my hands on, rather than trust the unreliable NH-90’s to pull my ass out of the fire if it came to that – politics and politicians be damned!

There’s also the problem of wanting to ‘push the envelope’.  That gets expensive in a hurry – new, often experimental technology is a lot more costly than older, proven technology.  The US Marines’ emphasis on the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey is a case in point.  I agree that its speed has revolutionized helicopter tactics, and given the Marines a whole new capability:  but was it worth the cost?  A single V-22 costs well over $70 million.  It’s had to battle increased maintenance costs and downtime (inevitable, given its very complex technology), and although that situation has improved, the running costs of the V-22 remain considerably higher than, say, the UH-60.  I’m not at all certain that the purchase of this ‘gold-plated’ platform was economically justifiable, given the way the Marines’ budget is being stripped to afford this and other ultra-expensive aviation platforms (such as the F-35B), leaving far too little money available to re-equip ground combat units.  Furthermore, I’m not sure that the improvement in tactical capability conferred by the V-22 justifies its cost.  Personally, I’d have bought double the number of conventional helicopters, which would still have saved billions of dollars.  I’d have used the money thus saved for other equipment (such as the now-canceled replacement for the AAV-P7A1, which is over 40 years old, outdated and just plain worn out, despite numerous updates).

The NH-90 is a textbook example of political correctness trumping military effectiveness.  Will any lessons be learned from this catastrophic program in future?  I doubt it . . . after all, politicians are involved.



  1. The core problem is that western nations have forgotten what it means to lose a war. They (we) will likely find out.

  2. Not just EU that have purchased this helicopter. New Zealand Airforce/Navy has just retired it's Vietnam era chopper with the NH-90

  3. There seems to be something rotten in the state of..(insert your state name of choice), and here in Australia, the same might apply.
    I am no expert, but after having served 21 years in the RAAF, and two in the Army, you kinda notice things.
    The purchase of the F35 by Australia really gives me pause for thought.
    Now, the NH90.
    What in hell is going on here?.
    Decades ago in Australia, the people at the coalface tasked with making final decisions regarding military hardware purchases, more often than not, swung some pretty astute and smart deals, yes, even the F-111 proved itself very capable after some teething troubles.
    Now though, the acquisition of the F35 and the NH90 are making sounds in some quarters that are less than comforting.

  4. AFAIK the purchase of the NH-90 has not been canceled because there where some ironclad contracts that never took the reliability or functionality of the product into account.

    So the German Army at least was stuck. Unlike an private buyer the Army apparently can't simply say "No, the thing does not work as specified. Take it back!".

    There was much outrage as the German defense minister negotiated a changed contract. Cut the number of bought helicopters in half or so, and reduced the total by 5% or so.
    I think it is the same as with other military projects. The Corporations use it as cash cow, and deliver an unusable product, that takes 3 times the amount to make usable.
    Without any real oversight from the people paying for it and some contracts that fix the bid price and stick the corporation with the development costs if they can't make it (or lets be fair, if their bid was unrealistic as hell) this plague will continue.

  5. From the contractor's point of view working on a government contract severely limits their ability to make design compromises and/or stretch a schedule when the inevitable technical snags are encountered with a complex development program. Additionally, working on a govt. contract imposes a high oversight burden. You have to spend more money demonstrating that you are spending the funds effectively…diminishing returns.

  6. The Osprey did not give the Marines a "new" capability.

    The Super Sea Stallion could carry as much and fly as far with refueling.

    What it boils down to now is that the USMC can much more rapidly deliver Infantryman beyond the support of their Super Cobras and must rely on fast movers for support. The abysmal "time on station" and maintenance limitations of any vertical lift jet ensure that every ground force commander's first priority of work is getting some sort of FARP or forward strip set up to get the Super Cobras into the fight.

    From a cost to weight carried perspective, the USMC would have been better off with Chinooks, but then they wouldn't have been "unique" and the USMC is quickly turning into a 21st century Air Force being supported by Vietnam era Grunts.

  7. Differ, the main problem is that contractors make unrealistic promises and bids, and then demand that the true price be paid.

    I can understand the last point from the contractors point of view, but sorry, we (the population) have to break them from the habit of underbidding.
    If they made a bid they knew they couldn't deliver, they have to pay the dues.

    The other side of course is that any change to the demands rightly ups the price tag.
    So the requirement is more or less that first the governments in question decide what they want, and ask for bids. As soon as the bidding process begins the specs are fixed. The contractor who wins the bid has to deliver before it gets paid.
    The price tag can only rise with inflation. So if they can't deliver the project to the price they bid for they have to eat the development costs.
    Only under extraordinary circumstances can that price increased.
    But every single change the government has made in the specs counts as extraordinary circumstances.

    There should be no difference between the Government buying a new weapon or a private citizen buying a yacht.
    If the yacht is not according to the specs or suddenly costs 3 times the private citizen will simply walk away.
    If the ship-builder already has partly payments, the private customer goes to the court and gets his money back. If he changed the specs partway through the building, he will have to pay for it, but if not he has to expect the ship to his specifications to the price that was negotiated.

    But if the customer is a government that suddenly does not work anymore.

  8. The only surprising thing about this story is that anyone is surprised at it.

    One size never fits all.

    Military design systems place great emphasis on "process" and audit trails, but all the design reviews in the world don't make a bit of difference if the requirements aren't carefully thought out and studied in great depth before the review process.

  9. Guys this shows what happens when you let the EU run the military. Storys going around this weekend in the UK that Germany is basicaly saying to the UK form an EU Army/Navy etc or else we will not let you have your reforms (such as actualy getting the Auditor General to Sign of the EU Accounts something not achieved in 15yrs.). The threat being that the USA will then talk to Berlin/Paris first on any military/Foreign Affairs cutting the UK out of th eloop.

    Well be careful what you wish for as exampled by the NH90 and German Armour running around with Broom Stick Handles instead of machine guns, you could find your new best Buds in Europe not up to the task.

  10. Sounds like the manufacturer learned the same thing our defense industry did years ago: split your work between various constituencies so that their elected representatives will defend your contract to the death.

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