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NH Industries (NHI) and the NATO Helicopter Management Agency (NAHEMA) have signed a contract to launch the development and qualification of the NH90 Block 1 upgrade (also known as Software Release 3), Airbus announced on 13 June 2024.

NAHEMA acted on behalf of Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. This programme is part of the NH90 evolution roadmap and constitutes a major upgrade in terms of capabilities for both the Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) and NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) variants of the NH90.

Airbus Helicopters holds a majority share in NHI, with 62.5%, while Leonardo holds 32% and GKN Fokker holds 5.5%.

“The signature of the SWR3 contract, which marks the launch of the NH90 Block 1 upgrade, is an important milestone for the NH90 programme and is a clear sign that our NATO customers trust the NH90 and plan on operating it for many more decades to come,” Axel Aloccio, president of NHI and head of the NH90 Programme at Airbus Helicopters, was quoted as saying in a company press release. “We have a clear plan to extend the life span of the NH90 up to 50 years and we will need to upgrade the aircraft to make sure it stays relevant on the battlefield of tomorrow. The Block 1 programme will cover the next 10 to 15 years. Beyond that horizon, we are also planning the Block 2 upgrade that will define the future evolutions of the platform and ensure that it continues to meet the needs of the battlefield of tomorrow,” he added.

The first phase of this EUR 600 million programme includes an upgrade of the NH90 communication suite and the integration of Datalink 22, allowing beyond-line-of-sight interoperability without going through satellite communications. IFF Mod 5 Level 2 (the latest version of the device used to identify and track military aircraft) will also be integrated. Other upgrades will be available to the operators and include the integration of a latest-generation electro-optical system, a new dipping sonar and the integration of the MK 54 torpedo and the Marte ER anti-ship missile. The NH90 Block 1 will be able to navigate with a civil-grade global navigation satellite system (GNSS) and flight management system.

The second phase of the programme, which is currently under finalisation, will consist of the deployment of the Block 1 configuration improvements on approximately 200 NH90s in total.

NHI will be hoping that this breathes new life into the NH90 programme, which has suffered in the past from delivery delays, high operational costs and performance issues.

Australia and Norway have both axed their NH90 fleets and Sweden has indicated it will do the same, while Portugal cancelled its NH90 order due to financial difficulties.

The armed forces of a dozen countries – Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Oman, Qatar, Spain and Sweden – currently operate variants of the NH90.