UK Mulls Puma Replacement Plans

 - July 23, 2020, 12:11 PM
Leonardo is offering the AW149 medium utility transport to the RAF as its new medium support helicopter. Attributes include a high-sink rate undercarriage, 50-minute “run-dry” main gearbox, four-axis autopilot, and large cabin doors for loading cargo and rapid ingress/egress. (Photo: Leonardo)

Originally developed as part of the wide-ranging Anglo-French helicopter agreement that also produced the Lynx and Gazelle, the Sud Aviation SA 330E Puma was built by Westland in the UK and entered service with the Royal Air Force in 1971. Despite 24 of the fleet having undergone the HC.Mk 2 upgrade program that added a glass cockpit, new tailrotor and gearbox, improved avionics and defenses, and more powerful Makila engines, the 50-year-old Puma is now nearing the end of its service life, which is currently set to expire in 2025.

Faced with that proposition, the UK Ministry of Defence is examining a number of options. Earlier in July, James Heappey, previously minister for defense procurement but now minister for the armed forces, visited Washington to sign a wide-ranging cooperation agreement with U.S. Army secretary Ryan McCarthy concerning modernization. Part of the agreement covered UK interest in the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program, which includes the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) element that pits the Sikorsky/Boeing SB>1 Defiant compound helicopter against the Bell V-280 Valor tiltrotor for the right to replace the U.S. Army’s UH-60 Black Hawk fleet.

While the UK MoD might harbor ambitions to one day operate FLRAA aircraft, it likely won't enter service until the 2030s, leaving a considerable capability gap in the RAF’s support helicopter force. One answer could involve a further extension of the Puma’s service life to around 2035, but having already undergone a significant upgrade the scope of further improvements would focus primarily on structural concerns.

One party that does not think a second Puma upgrade represents the best way forward is the OEM itself. Leonardo UK, the successor to Westland, might find a place if the UK eventually procures the FLRAA, but meanwhile, it is proposing its AW149 9-tonne multi-role medium transport helicopter as the ideal solution for the Puma replacement and one that it promises it would assemble at the former Westland plant in Yeovil.

Military certification for the AW149 came in 2014, some five years after the machine performed its first flight performed in November 2009. The helicopter failed in its bid to fulfill the Turkish Utility Helicopter Program requirement, which instead decided on the Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk variant. The Royal Thai Army subsequently bought the AW149.

During the DSEI defense exhibition in London last year, Leonardo displayed the AW149 as part of its push to interest the UK in the model as a Puma replacement. The display highlighted the helicopter’s versatility, not only in terms of its ability to accommodate varied loads in the cabin, including up to 16 troops, but also the ability to mount various weaponry on external pylons. The company presented it with an Osprey radar and integrated defensive aids suite incorporating Leonardo systems such as Sage electronic support measures and MAIR missile warning system.