The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is proceeding with a controversial upgrade of 30 SA330 Puma helicopters that have already been operated by the Royal Air Force for nearly 40 years. Eurocopter will soon receive a contract worth about £220 million ($360 million) for a Life Extension Program (LEP) that will keep the Pumas in service for another 10 years, starting in 2012. They will receive twin Turbomeca Makila turboshafts, new gearboxes and tail rotors, as well as new engine controls and a digital autopilot that was designed for the EC 725 Caracel. A Eurocopter UK official described the Puma LEP to AIN as “an EC 725 wrapped in an old skin.” The upgrade is similar to one already done on the Romanian-built IAR-330L Pumas belonging to the UAE Air Force. Indeed, most of the work on the British Pumas will be done in Eurocopter’s Romanian facility, although secure communications and defensive aids will be added in the UK. The design work and first four helicopters will be done at Eurocopter’s headquarters in Marseilles, France.
As recently as last month, the British defense procurement minister told the parliamentary defense committee that he was reconsidering the upgrade plan, which will cost over £7 million ($11.5 million) per aircraft. As an alternative, the MoD has received various proposals from Sikorsky for the supply of new UH-60L, UH-60M or S-70I Black Hawk helicopters. Ultimately, the MoD intends to replace the Pumas as well as its fleet of Westland-built Sikorsky Sea King Mk4 troop-carrying helicopters with a new and yet-to-be-selected Future Medium Helicopter. But this process is not scheduled to start until 2017. In recent weeks, the British government has been criticized by senior serving and retired military officers and opposition political parties for not providing enough helicopters to support British troops in Afghanistan.