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Five Airbus H135 light utility helicopters procured by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) to replace ageing Gazelle aircraft are being mothballed before even seeing any active service, it has emerged.

FlightGlobal, which broke the story on 6 February 2023, was told by two sources that the H135s had been procured to replace Gazelles operating in Northern Ireland, but that the improved security situation there had made the procurement redundant.

The H135s were procured under Project MATCHA, which was launched in September 2019 and described at the time as an ‘urgent capability requirement’. With the UK military’s fleet of Gazelle helicopters due to be withdrawn from service in March 2024, the H135s were ordered in October 2021 and delivered in 2022. It is unclear why such an urgent requirement took three years to deliver, while the cost of the acquisition has not been disclosed.

What happens to the H135s now has not yet been determined. It is possible that they could be transferred to the National Police Air Service (NPAS), which already operates the type, and Airbus is currently bidding in a contest to replace seven NPAS helicopters. However, NPAS platforms are highly customised, whereas it is understood the MoD’s H135s were delivered in a standard configuration and would have been modified for their role in the UK.

H135s are also used by the UK Military Flying Training System (UKMFTS), but these aircraft, which are known as Juno HT1s, are owned by Ascent Flight Training rather than the UK government.

An Army Air Corps Gazelle reconnaissance helicopter during training in Canada in November 2011. Gazelles have been in UK service since 1974; replacing some of them with Airbus H135s is no longer happening. (Crown Copyright)

Alternatively, it is possible the helicopters might simply be sold back to Airbus or another buyer.

The requirement for helicopters in Northern Ireland is a historical one. During the unrest there known as The Troubles, which began in the 1960s and ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, UK military personnel were frequently transported by helicopter to avoid ambushes or roadside bombs laid by republican militants. Although the Provisional Irish Republican Army had effectively disarmed by 2005, dissident republican militants continued to pose a threat for the years beyond then. However, for the year running from 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2022 the Police Service of Northern Ireland reported that “there were fewer security related deaths and a marked decrease in the number of shootings, bombings and paramilitary style attacks compared to the previous year. … There were 33 casualties of paramilitary style assaults during 2021/22, [which is] six fewer than during the previous year (39) and the lowest number since 1985/86.”

Peter Felstead