Designing the next generation of military helicopters is understandably a long term project. Airbus Helicopters is already working on a series of features that will ensure a decisive operational impact on the battlefield. Head of Programmes Matthieu Louvot tells Rotor how the company conceptualises future products. 

How would you summarise Airbus Helicopters’ approach to innovation in the military range? 

Matthieu Louvot: Airbus Helicopters is currently launching, or re-launching, a great wave of innovation in the military. There was a significant wave in the 1990s and the 2000s, when we created the Tiger and the NH90. Then we focused more on civil developments during the 2010s. Now, in the 20s and 30s, we are back on a major military innovation cycle with the launch of two major programmes, the Tiger MkIII and the HIL (H160M) and with the H145M, which continues to develop. Then you add the self-funded launch of the H175M and the VSR700. So, we are back on a major cycle of military innovation.

The biggest challenge is to carry out the two very large programmes which will keep us busy throughout the 20s and to continue into the 30s, with a new wave of innovation that we are preparing with ENGRT and the support of National R&T from France, Germany and Spain. This really will be the helicopter of the future, with more advanced technological bricks on subjects such as coupling with drones. So, again, with the coupling with drones, with connectivity, with better survivability and with much simpler and lighter maintenance schemes for the forces, we are truly in a wave of development in terms of military technology. 


Does the conflict that we’re seeing in Ukraine show that the helicopter will soon become obsolete? 

ML: Combat helicopters and transport helicopters are still essential to modern conflicts. This applies as much to the asymmetric conflicts we have seen over the last 20 years as it does to a symmetric conflict, such as the war in Ukraine today. It’s just that in a symmetrical conflict, you need greater protection and operational precautions. That is exactly what our helicopters are designed for.

Yes, the conflict in Ukraine has raised questions because we saw a number of helicopters destroyed at the beginning of the conflict. This was related to a specific way of using helicopters that made them very vulnerable. The reality is that modern helicopters, particularly the NH90 and the Tiger, but also our military range in general, have sophisticated avionics that allow them to fly very low, at night or in adverse conditions. The NH90 even has electronic flight controls to give it unparalleled tactical flight flexibility. It has very advanced self-defence systems that allow it to protect against, in particular, missiles with infrared guidance systems. It has armour and systems that make it resistant to many kinds of attack, so it is very well protected and operates in conditions that make the helicopter much more difficult to detect and target. And the helicopter remains essential to many missions, because it is extremely flexible. It can take off and land anywhere, so it can pick up troops and drop them off anywhere. It can operate in a much closer and coordinated way with troops on the ground, with a view of the local tactical situation that is much more accurate than a fixed wing because the helicopter pilot has a much clearer view of the operating terrain. 

A German Tiger in flight

Do you foresee possible changes to helicopter missions in conflict situations? What role will connectivity play in this? 

ML: Many of the core missions are still rescue missions in hostile territory. Troop transport missions to get them into position rapidly, to move them quickly from one point to another in the field of operations. Deep cover missions, close combat missions, mainly directed at ground targets, reconnaissance or armed reconnaissance missions, physical transport missions, equipment transport missions. These missions are still very relevant. Other types of mission could be considered, for example communication relay missions, UAV missions that operate more in a connected combat context. We could indeed develop these new mission capabilities.

Modern combat requires very close coordination between ground troops, air forces, sometimes even the navy and various other units. Helicopters, which operate between land and air forces, need to be closely connected with all players, and the evolution of technology today enables a much more extensive exchange of data than in the past. This need for connectivity is therefore becoming technologically addressable and more intense for the sophisticated operations required today. The war in Ukraine has shown how crucial this coordination is and the importance of the development of connectivity. For programmes currently being developed, such as the French Guépard and Tiger MkIII, for France and Spain, the ability to exchange and cross-check data to give all stakeholders a precise view of the tactical situation is one of the major innovations to be developed in this context.

Tiger in flight

How does Airbus both identify and create technologies that will be impactful for the future? 

 As is often the case when it comes to innovation, there are two approaches. One is driven by technology, the “techno push”, and it is our responsibility as manufacturers to identify technologies that will have an impact on the performance of the helicopter or these systems and bring them to maturity. This logic is reflected in our demonstrators. One example is the RACER (Rapid and Cost Effective Rotorcraft). Speed could be an asset for military helicopters in certain contexts. The RACER, which is a civil demonstrator, enables the maturation of this technology, which could one day also have a military use. We sometimes have other military applications with civil characteristics, such as discretion. Reducing noise from the helicopter obviously makes it less detectable and the progress we have made on the H175 and even more so on the H160 in terms of noise reduction is clearly also of military interest.

But innovation must also be pulled by the needs of the military user. Here it is crucial to look at the new operational mission scenarios and confront them with available or emerging technologies in order to fund the maturation of the key ones. We must work with France, Germany, Spain and more generally all the countries where Airbus is established. A key lever for scale and convergence of needs are the major European projects. ENGRT or European Next Generation Rotorcraft Technologies is a major one. It is funded by the European Defence Fund to mature the technological bricks for a new generation of helicopter and is managed in cooperation with a large number of countries. Its aim is to develop concepts of operation for future helicopters and then the core technologies to deliver superior solutions. It creates a platform to exchange with our customers to understand their operational needs, their new operating policy and consequent challenges.

Related to connectivity but predicted to be equally crucial in its own way is Manned-Unmanned Teaming. What is Airbus doing in this area?

ML: Drones and autonomy are key areas of innovation. I mean autonomy in the sense of reducing pilot workload at various degrees up to full unmanned flight. They are very exciting areas of development that we would like to apply to a new generation of helicopter in the course of the 2030s. We have also demonstrated in Germany the ability to couple drones and helicopters with the H145M. 

We were discussing new uses for military helicopters: the role of piloting a group or even a swarm of drones is a new mission that helicopters could adopt. There is a lot of interest in this, given the progress and development of drone technology. For this new helicopter mission, we are well ahead of the game.