After many months of speculation, Poland’s center-right Law & Justice (PiS) government has at long last opted to forgo further negotiations with Airbus regarding a PLN13.5 billion ($3.5 billion) deal to purchase 50 H225M Caracal medium-lift utility helicopters. The PiS government inherited the negotiations from its predecessor, the centrist Civic Platform (PO) government.
Earlier, on April 21, 2015, the PO government had downselected the Airbus Caracal offering over bids from the Polish subsidiary of Sikorsky, PZL Mielec (offering the S-70i Black Hawk) and AgustaWestland’s local subsidiary PZL-Swidnik (AW149). The utility helicopter program had originally involved a purchase of 70 new-build units, but the number was later shrunk to 50.
The choice of the Caracal widely surprised observers considering the other two contenders had roots in Polish industry. When it announced its selection, Poland’s Ministry of National Defense cited the inability of the Sikorsky and AgustaWestland bids to meet the formal and technical requirements of the tender.
But almost immediately upon the announcement of Airbus’ selection, there was pushback over the decision.
Citing the high cost of the acquisition and the lack of offsetting local industrial involvement from the French side (one official was quoted as saying that only 10 percent of the purchased helicopters would be completed in Poland), the PiS, upon stepping into office, seemed eager to scrap the arrangement.
Almost immediately upon taking power in November 2015, the PiS government began publicly questioning the decision made by the previous administration to procure the Caracal.
Although a contract had already been negotiated with Airbus by the economy ministry, no signature had been laid down on paper. This left open the possibility of getting out of the selection altogether and re-tendering the program.
By February 4, 2016, it was being reported in local daily Rzeczpospolita that the government had opted to scrap the Caracal procurement altogether. But other local sources countered this claim, stating that the Defense Ministry had not canceled the contract.
Instead, an option was floated by Poland’s Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz for a greatly scaled down order of H225M Caracals, beginning with an initial purchase of 8-10 units plus options for more helicopters and industrial concessions to local aviation facilities PZL-Swidnik and PZL Mielec by Airbus. The idea was that funds saved by reducing the Caracal order would be shifted toward purchases of Lockheed Martin (Sikorsky’s holding company) Black Hawks and AgustaWestland AW149s to fill in any capacity shortfalls while simultaneously supporting local industry.
Now it appears even the limited order of Caracals is completely off the table and Poland has walked away altogether, opening up the possibility of larger orders of Black Hawks and AW149s or even a total relaunch of the original tender.
The utility helicopter procurement was one of two major projects initiated by the Ministry of National Defense in order to revamp and modernize the Soviet-legacy Mil fleets. The other program, the so-called Kruk (“Raven”) project, involves the purchase of 18-32 new attack helicopters.
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