The Norwegian government has finally decided to break a decades-old contract with the European producer of its deeply troubled NH90 helicopters, following years of serious delays in delivery and operational problems. Producer NHindustries, however, claims Norway can’t break the contract and that it’s “extremely disappointed” in the Norwegian defense department.
NHindustries of France, which produced the helicopters in cooperation with its Italian partner Leonardo Helicopters, also rejected Norway’s complaints about the NH90 helicopters and the company, claiming they had no legal basis. That suggests lawsuits loom after a long history of trouble with the helicopters that Norway now plans to send in return to NHindustries.
Norwegian defense officials have sent a declaration to NHindustries that they won’t take delivery of the last of 14 helicopters ordered in 21 years ago, will return the other 13 helicopters and their related equipment, and demand a refund of the roughly NOK 5 billion (around USD 531 million at current exchange rates) that Norway paid for it all, plus interest and fees. NHindustries seems poised to reject the claims.
The NH90s were developed through the NHindustries consortium of four European countries and designed to carry up to 16 passengers. Norway wanted to use them for search and rescue operations, fisheries monitoring and on board new frigates that also ended up being delayed and facing troubles.
They were first ordered during a Labour Party government in 2000-2001, when Defense Minister Bjørn Tore Godal at the time was expected to have selected helicopters with known technology for use on board Norwegian coast guard vessels and frigates. Instead Godal’s staff opted for 14 of the then-new NH90 “multi-purpose” helicopters that were still under development.
It took 19 years to get the first nine helicopters delivered and Norway now has a fleet of 13. All of them, however, need what defense officials claim is “lots of work” accompanied by high costs tied to necessary upgrading of systems that are now too old.
“We have undertaken a thorough evaluation of whether it’s possible to get any real operative use out of the NH90s,” Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram said at a press conference Friday morning. “The conclusion is negative. From a delivery time perspective, investment in alternative helicopter capacity would probably be more reasonable.”
Defense Chief and General Eirik Kristoffersen supports the government’s decision to bail out of the long-troubled NH90 project. “We simply been delivered a helicopter that doesn’t operate as it should,” Kristoffersen said.
NHindustries denies that, claiming that the company never got an opportunity to discuss a proposal to improve the NH90s in Norway, or address Norwegian demands. The company claimed the 14th helicopter is now ready for approval, meaning the “main portion” of its initial contract with Norway was close to being fulfilled.
There’s no question that delivery of the NH90s was chronically delayed. The first helicopter was due in 2005 with all expected to be in place by 2008. Instead the first NH90 helicopter didn’t arrive until 2011 and wasn’t operative until 2017. Another six are still only in a “preliminary version,” according to state broadcaster NRK.
‘Internal problems,’ too
Frank Bakke-Jensen, defense minister in the former Conservatives-led government, has called the order for the NH90 “a catastrophic project,” but some Norwegian officers and defense employees have also claimed that the helicopter problems aren’t only tied to their supplier. A lack of coordination among various agencies within the defense department and ministry has also created operating problems, Torbjørn Bongo, leader of a federation representing officers (Norges Offisers- og Spesialistforbund), told NRK.
Bongo was frustrated on Friday, claiming his employee organization didn’t get a chance to comment on the fate of the helicopters. He’s always been skeptical towards breaking the contract, because “we haven’t done our part of the job well enough,” either in organizing or coordinating.
“We have lots of various players in the picture,” he told NRK. “You can’t expect, for example, to have reserve parts ready if no one has ordered them or jas authority to pay for them.” Bongo thinks “internal problems” within the defense department have contributed to the unhappy situation and that the helicopters have finally begun to function. “I’m critical that we haven’t had a chance to put that forward to the government.”
The NH90 helicopters deal has already been condemned by Norway’s state auditor general (Riksrevisjonen), and Norway’s Parliament held hearings on all the difficulties three years ago. Neither Godal nor a single defense minister succeeding him over the past two decades admitted to any blame during those hearings, however, leaving the defense department stuck with the helicopters until now.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on Friday that the government is now considering leasing other helicopters to replace the NH90s, perhaps from NATO allies, so that Norwegian coast guard vessels and frigates will finally have some helicopter service. That’s because it can take up to at least five years to order and take delivery of new helicopters.
NHindustries (NHI) describes itself as a French SAS company, based in Aix-en-Provence and established in 1992. It is wholly owned by Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo Helicopters and Fokker and provides the focal point for these companies for the NH90 programme. NHI reports that it managed the design, development and entry to service of the NH90 for both NAHEMA (NATO Helicopter Management Agency) and export customers from New Zealand to Norway.
Legal battles are now likely, with both NHindustries and Norway claiming the law is on their side. Norway’s state auditor general’s office, meanwhile, claimed as early as four years ago that the Norwegian defense department must take its share of responsibility. “The supplier has a great deal of responsibility for the delays, but the Defense Ministry, the Defense Department (the administrative arm) and Defense Material haven’t followed up the acquisition well enough,” the auditor wrote in 2018.
At Friday’s press conference, both the defense minister and defense chief praised all Norwegian personnel involved with the NH90 helicopters.