Middle East helicopters central to region’s security

 - December 6, 2006, 1:26 PM

Television images last May of Saudi commandos dropping from a Kawasaki-Vertol KV 107IIA helicopter in a dramatic rooftop assault to free hostages from terrorists has underscored the importance of rotary-wing aircraft to Middle Eastern governments. The current heightened security state, with its emphasis on anti-terrorist operations, has made helicopters the airborne assets of choice for close-in, fast-reaction operations.

New types have become particularly popular. From the current Bell/Agusta Aerospace AB139 order book of more than 140 units, some 30 of the popular medium twin have gone to governments here in the Gulf region. The United Arab Emirates has put into public service two VIP models, and holds orders for eight more destined for air force search-and-rescue duties next year. The value of that contract alone stands at about $83 million.

Oman’s police force has also bought six AB139s and another is destined for an unidentified government or civil customer.

The order backlog for the AB139 now stands at more than 100 helicopters, selected by more than 40 customers worldwide. However, Bell/Agusta Aerospace will produce only 20 units this year and doesn’t expect to raise rates beyond 50 until 2007. At that rate, customers may have to wait three years for delivery. Bell/Agusta managing director Lou Bartolotta said the company hopes to shorten the wait to a “more appropriate” 12 to 18 months. “But we want to avoid a surge in production to reduce the backlog, as that leads to overcapacity,” he noted.

The UAE became the third country to choose the AB139 for SAR applications, following orders by the Omani and Irish governments. The AB139 takes direct aim at the Bell 212/412 replacement market sector, seemingly ripe for a new-generation craft given that competition comes mainly from the larger EH Industries EH101, NH Industries NH90 and Euromil Mi-38 models.

According to an Agusta spokesman, the configuration of the UAE SAR helicopters will include elements both of the configuration originally proposed for the now-ealigned Deepwater project, and the standard emergency medical module. “Certainly,” he said, “it will include six litters and four attendant seats.” The balance of the 30 orders includes options in the process of being converted to firm orders, as well as seven AB139s destined for a Far Eastern customer who plans to operate them on contracts throughout Asia.

Unsurprisingly, defense forces in the Middle East and North Africa have begun to look more closely at helicopters as the preferred vehicle for troop and equipment transport, stealth operations and night assaults on terrorist hideouts, as well as conventional search and rescue, VIP transport and air ambulances.

Oman has invested in the British Super Lynx. Yemen earlier showed some interest in Kamov’s Ka-52 Alligator, but did not pursue it at least partly because the aircraft is not included in the Russian army’s inventory. Once Russian special forces start taking delivery, Kamov hopes foreign buyers will follow. At the recent MAKS airshow in Moscow, the OEM said King Abdullah II of Jordan showed “much interest” in Russian military developments and signed a Russia-Jordan trade agreement.

The utility value and convenience of helicopter-centered operations seem to far outweigh their disadvantages. As a result, the helicopter industry remains optimistic about the Middle East market.

“Helicopter sales are in a decidedly vertical climb as far as the Middle East is concerned,” said a Bell spokesman. “In the next few years, this activity will expand to encompass new acquisitions, add-on features such as night-vision goggle and weapons capability, on-board terrain-mapping and so on. That’s not forgetting medium-life upgrades to the airframe and engines of existing fleets.”

A recent Frost and Sullivan report predicted that the potential value of the helicopter market in the Middle East from 2003 to 2012 could reach as much as at $14.5 billion. The report projected the most demand from the Gulf Cooperation Council nations followed by Jordan, Egypt, Iran and Iraq, and that the aircraft most liable to corner the market would offer multitasking capabilities, even if that flexibility compromised their primary military roles to an extent.

“Types that can take on VIP transport, ambulance, equipment and troop-carrier roles, as well as being capable of supporting ground forces or naval vessels, are likely to be the ones to swell the order books of helicopter manufacturers,” the Bell spokesman continued.