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Five-member nations of NATO (France, Germany, Greece, the UK and Italy) have recently agreed to build a next-generation helicopter to replace the existing fleet starting in 2035. The news was announced on November 19 in a statement from the alliance.

NATO’s Next-Generation Rotorcraft Capability Program

Each participating country signed a letter of intent (LoI) to participate in the program which is called the Next-Generation Rotorcraft Capability (NGRC) program. The memorandum of understanding (MoU) is due to be signed in early 2022, and the collaboration is open to all the alliance’s members including others who wish to join on.

This collaboration comes amid the US military’s effort to develop its new medium-multirole aircraft through the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) competition, set to be completed by the end of 2020. 

The FLRAA will boost survival, air assault, and lethal capabilities suitable for Multi-Domain Operations in a theater such as the Indo Pacific, the US Army official website stated.

NATO’s Helicopter Fleet Will be out of Service Soon

The helicopter project indicates how the alliance urgently needs new rotorcraft as most of the NATO rotorcraft will be grounded in 2035. Therefore, the new fleet is expected to replace the aging ones-despite some design modifications in the future. The news was delivered by Col. Paul Morris, assistant head of air maneuvers for the British Army, in a recent presentation.

“The analysis suggests that’s about 1,000 airframes, and that’s not including those from the United States, that will be retired in and around that period. Operational analysis, not only says that there is a requirement to replace, but there is an enduring requirement for that capability in the medium space carriage, and high proficiency profiles,” Morris said in his presentation during the Vertical Flight Society’s 76th Annual Forum & Technology Display.

Most of the NATO medium-sized helicopters have been operating for around 40 to 60 years. Meanwhile, the latest NATO medium-sized helicopter (NH90) made its maiden flight in 1995.

Split Between the US and NATO?

Brandon Weichert – a prominent national security analyst – told InsideOver that NATO should have upgraded its medium-sized helicopters a long time ago, questioning the non-binding agreement despite the need for a medium-sized helicopter.

“I also thought it was interesting that when they made the announcement, the NATO, the may have members who did it, they, they, the Americans really weren’t involved. I mean, it was, it was left open for any NATO member to sign onto this initiative eventually, but the likes of Germany spearheaded it,” Weichert said, adding that there seems to be a growing split between Europe and the US in NATO.

“The actual agreement is instead a non-binding statement of purpose as if they were making a statement hoping that the US and other powerful partners will come in and underwriting the whole process from the get-go. So it’s very interesting that I think it indicates that only that there’s a divide amongst the European side of NATO and on ourselves in the United States.” Weichert said.

He added that the UK has world-class new aircraft carriers, but it does not have a medium-sized helicopter with such a capability to put on the Queen Elizabeth. Therefore, the UK wants NATO to build helicopters to offset the cost.

France and Germany Have Different Opinions About US Role

French President Emmanuel Macron said that Europe must be sovereign in defense, slamming German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s recent statement in Politico that Europe still needs to rely on US military power in the future.

“I am in complete disagreement with the opinion article published in Politico by the German defense minister,” Macron said, adding that the US will respect its allies if they are sovereign regarding their defense decisions.

France’s intention to stay away from America’s shadow is because France is one of the only nuclear powers in Europe outside Russia with an independent military. While Germany is the continent’s economic powerhouse, Berlin is not interested in investing its resources in defense, as Weichert explained.

However, France still needs US logistical support for the former’s current operations in Mali, Weichert added. While NATO still needs the US, Washington now is focusing more on China—which is one of the world’s surging economic and military powers.

In 2017, US President Donald Trump complained that 23 out of 28 NATO members had yet to pay their defense obligations. Last June, Trump decided to pull American troops out of Germany, citing that Berlin had to pay their own military costs.

Different Priorities Among NATO members

NATO members have split over which issues should be the alliance’s top priority. While Europe’s eastern side may raise concern over Russia, the continent’s Southern part tends to focus on containing the flux of migrants to tackle terrorist attacks. While the West part may worry about climate change, Russia, and China.

Greece is also involved in an ongoing spat with fellow NATO member Turkey over the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Even NATO members worry about Ankara’s closer ties with Russia after testing the latter’s S-400 defense system.

Is the New Helicopter Mainly Intended to Deter Russia?

This is the question that may come up to everyone’s mind, given Russia’s continuous effort to modernize its defense by focusing on laser and hypersonic weapons.

“I think that the medium-lift capability that they’re focusing on, because it’s pretty much every NATO rotorcraft needs to be upgraded and replaced. Still, it looks, it sounds like my read on it is they’re going to fixate on the medium-lift capability because yes, if there was something with Russia to erupt, they would need to be able to transport NATO forces, you know, rather rapidly,” Weichert said. “And the medium-lift capability allows them to do that. So yes, it does look like they’re focusing, they’re starting to say, Hey, Russia is, is a priority.”

More Comprehensive Dialog is Necessary

The alliance should narrow its gap among its members to modernize their military capabilities and discuss which issues to be prioritized first.

“Everything is too centralized. Some members are more capable than others. If you worry about Russia’s invasion, I think it is about time we have a real discussion. What country can fight against Russia’s invasion?” Weichert wrapped up the interview, adding that the Turkey issue can be one of the thorniest ones that NATO members should focus on.