How Much is a Blackhawk – Part 2


There is a persistent myth that somehow we can get a Blackhawk for £8million, or ‘less than £10 million’ if you listen to Douglas Carswell MP.

Douglas is a Conservative MP with strong free-market beliefs and of course, there is nothing wrong with that, he argues that defence should be no different to any market and we should simply buy off the shelf from the cheapest supplier if UK defence manufacturers can’t compete in open competition they don’t deserve the business.

Given the roughly £27million per airframe cost of the Future Lynx programme, it’s hard to argue against the logic. We must note that this is an overall programme cost, not the price of the aircraft and it also includes 2 versions, the naval variant will be more expensive than the Army version.

I have been commenting on Douglas’s blog for some time, I always make a point of reading it because there are often some great posts, except for the ones about gardening that is!

Whenever he posts on the MoD or Defence Industrial Strategy it always seems to come around to £8 million helicopters and despite repeatedly commenting on the basic inaccuracy of this he persists with repeating it.

I would like to think we have a small measure of credibility at Think Defence, we are not connected to the MoD or defence industry so have no axes to grind, either way, our interest is to get more people talking about defence issues and no more.

It is one thing to put one’s faith in the global free market for paperclips but the means of one’s defence, I think, needs slightly different rules.

But promulgating the myth of the £8 million Blackhawk does no one any favours, so Douglas, just for you…

US Products are Always Better


Some are, some aren’t and it has nothing to do with what it costs. Many of our pieces of equipment are way better, many less so.

The Black Hawk is less  than £10 million


Although it is a fine aircraft it is not cheaper, crucially the oft-quoted prices simply do not reflect the reality of actual export sales. A helicopter is a very complex piece of equipment that needs a substantial support infrastructure of aircrew, maintenance, safety certification and others. The sticker price is a fraction of the actual cost, the through-life cost is something we should always be more concerned with.

Pilots do not grow on trees, REME aviation technicians likewise, flight simulators are not cheap, fuel/consumables is a serious consideration, a new engine is no small undertaking and commonality with other UK equipment already in service like Defensive Aids is not an optional extra.

The utility version of the Black Hawk is called the UH60M and we often see references to it costing $14million but what is the export price?

As we have said before, it’s almost impossible to get an accurate figure because of commercial issues and, equipment fit variation and other costs such as training or spares that are sometimes included and sometimes not.

The only thing we can do is look at indicators of other sales.

3 to Mexico, $35.2m or $11.75m each

4 to Egypt, $176m or $44.4m each

60 to Taiwan, $3,100m or $51.7m each

9 to Bahrain, $204m or $22.7m each

The huge difference in price (£8m to £33m) is because of equipment and logistics support, spares, training and documentation etc. Inserting an extra few airframes into an already mature and functioning support infrastructure is vastly different to introducing a new type. US prices also usually do not include so-called Government Furnished Equipment, mainly electronic systems, that adds significantly to the price.

Equipment fit, do we really want helicopters to be flying around in Afghanistan without the very latest and best equipment?

Some might complain that this is gold plating but the service personnel we ask to fly in them might see things a wee bit differently.

It’s a fatuous analogy but the cheapest BMW 3 series costs £22k, the most expensive, with all the Gucci extras, is £46k. Instead of a leather steering wheel and heated seats, the optional extras on a helicopter include flare dispensers, self-sealing fuel tanks, attack warning indicators, night vision compatible cockpit and armoured seats.

We should also factor in the tax revenues and other economic benefits of maintaining sovereign capabilities.

This is not an excuse for me for the MoD or UK Defence Industry because at £27 million for Future Lynx is outrageous but merely a look at the complexities of obtaining and operating complex equipment.

The global free market in defence goods is a myth, if we opened up our already liberal in comparison to others defence markets, we would simply expose our manufacturers to other organisations that benefit from protectionist regimes in their home territories. US companies, for example, enjoy just as much protectionism as any other, government-funded research being a notable area that they benefit from. The same is true for other nations with defence industries, look at a German, French or Russian soldier and what equipment he has, then tell me they operate on an equal footing in an open free and fair market.

There is absolutely no doubt that we need serious acquisition reform, a review of the role of regional/national politics and a clear understanding of the actual strategic and monetary value of ‘Buying British’ but reverting to the tired old one-dimensional retort of £10m Blackhawks simply demonstrates a lack of understanding and advances the debate not one jot.

Sorry Douglas, but there it is.

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28 Responses

  1. The cost of defence equipment is a con. Perhaps the only choice “we” have is whether we get screwed by the Yanks or screwed by our European partners.

    You could play this argument out with any procurement competition. For example we could play C130J vs A400m.

    The best we can hope for is that somebody’s relative or friend doesn’t pay the ultimate price because of a decision made in Whitehall.

  2. Thank you! I have been banging away at this over at his blog for well over a year now, and every time he refuses to take in the facts (and I gave him the Taiwan link as well). But he is happy to respond to comments as long as they do not interfere with his cherished ‘8m’ figure – a sacrosanct number for some apparently.

  3. No, support costs are not irrelevant, as noted. However, Blackhawk primary components and spares are manufactured for a fleet numbering in thousands. We will have around 70 Wildcats, so support costs per airframe will be less. Morever, a Blackhawk has nearly double the maximum take off wieght of a Wildcat, and so has more margin when the missions call for more equipment of one sort or another, as usually occurs during service life.

    However, a more fundamental point is really whether it is wise to develop our own solution when the numbers are so small and off the shelf solutions exist elsewhere. I would say not

  4. I thought exports where high on the agenda for the Wildcat? 70 airframes for the British armed forces but surely more for export. After all 155 airframes of the Super Lynx have been exported, which is not too bad.

  5. “Equipment fit, do we really want helicopters to be flying around in Afghanistan without the very latest and best equipment?”

    I think thats a fair question. But I dont think it supports your arguement.
    Helicopter in Afghanistan are shot down by heavy machine guns, all the flares and jammers in the world are irrelevent.
    Some bits are useful, others less so.

    “The same is true for other nations with defence industries, look at a German, French or Russian soldier and what equipment he has, then tell me they operate on an equal footing in an open free and fair market.”
    No one says Russia operates on a free market.
    Considering what a British armoured Brigade would do to its Russian equiviliant, annihilate it in short order, I again dont see the point?

    £8mn is the wrong number.
    But its still the right answer.

    I suppose it depends on what you want the armed forces to do.
    The Franco-German armed forces are job creation schemes, no one disputes this.
    The Americans have the luxary of being job creation schemes and killing machines, for now, although I dont see 5000 man crews on its future carriers being acceptable for long.
    We dont.

    Either you want armed forces that can fight and win wars, in which case you buy the best equipment from anywhere in the world, or you want to keep 200,000 men off the dole and another, who knows, working in the arms industry, and you buy whatever your national champions offer, even if its crap.

    Would an order of 50 min spec black hawks at £10mn a pop be a great solution to UK unemployment?
    Would those 50 helicopters operating in Ghanners from 2005 have saved lives, limbs and armoured vehicles?
    Would that £500mn have been £500mn well spent, even if we just scrapped the airframes in 2015?
    I cant answer that.

  6. The reason helicopters are shot down by heavy machine guns is exactly because the expensive DAS is doing its job, man portable missiles remain a credible threat and it would not take much for more of them to be supplied from over the border, thus denying allied forces air mobility almost overnight. I just used DAS as an example, there are plenty of other systems that are expensive but no less essential.

    The point I was trying to make with the German/French/Russian part was to demonstrate that no nation with a defence industry treats them like Douglas would have us treat ours. Taking his prescription would expose BAe etc to unfair competition as they have to compete in domestic markets with manufacturers that enjoy subsidised and protectionist markets at home. You could argue that the British defence market is actually one of the most liberal of all the nations with a defence industry.

    The cost of the airframe might have been £10m a go, it might have not and lets assume we don’t bother with the optional extras like BOWMAN, self sealing tanks or DAS or data links etc, how much actual use do you think they would be. how much of a liability, what about if one gets shot down (imagine the headlines) and how much extra costs would have to be absorbed by training and logs etc.

    All I am trying to do is explain why things are a little more complex

    You raise a good question about risk v effect.

    Operating operating helicopters on the cheap might be risky but as you say, when taken in the round would it have had a tactical and strategic benefit.

    Difficult question, not sure of the answer

  7. Admin
    I thought AA missiles were seriously limited kit, but if they’re, readily is the wrong word, but readily available, then fair enough.
    I’m aware of a few stingers being used, but to little effect since they were from the mid 80’s and well past their best.

    I understand your point about the defence market, but I dont think you understand DC’s.
    If the point of the armed forces is to employ large numbers of otherwise unemployables and to provide lots of work for weapons builders, it makes sense to buy local.
    If the point of the armed forces is to win wars, it makes sense to buy the best equipment from around the world.
    The US, thanks to its massive size, can fudge it and do both, the UK cant.

    We have to make a choice, limit ourselves to homegrown and limit our capability, or buy the kit we need for the task at hand from around the world and win wars.

    “Difficult question, not sure of the answer”

    Just to be clear, I wasnt actualy expecting an answer, I was just throwing the point out there.

    Although money is a key point, by far the more important question is.
    “For fighting a war from 2005-2015, do you want helicopters delivered in 2005 or 2015?”

  8. Forgive me for labouring the point, but forget cost, the number one reason to prefer Blackhawk is that it is by far the best aircraft for the job: supremely reliable, impressively flexible, and survivable in a way that no Lynx or derivative model is.The S-92 will only improve the breed.

    Why is Blackhawk so much better? Ask the pilots. The arrangement of the wheels and visibility from the cockpit makes it manoeuvrable in a way that belies its size and that few other utility helicopters of a similar size can match. Small arms fire will bring most choppers down, but the extent to which Blackhawks get shot up and still return to base has to be seen to be believed. (See YouTube). The speed with which 12 guys can get in and out is also impressive due to the width of the thing. The way in which guns can be mounted forward of the troop compartment is also clever. In short, it has been very well thought out by people who have actually gone to war in a helicopter.

    What annoys me most about this debate is that I told Michael Heseltine to his face that we should buy Blackhawks back in 1986!

  9. Nicholas: “the number one reason to prefer Blackhawk is that it is by far the best aircraft for the job”

    No its not !

    That’s a universal answer. What is the job you want it to do? You want something just up from the Lynx that can carry an 8 man squad with full personal loads, 2 door gunners plus some armour, etc in Ghanners, then OK it might be good enough. Better make sure its a brand new M variant though as the USAF CSAR Blackhawks have been struggling with their lack of hot and high performance.

    Do a full scale cost benefit analysis and you might find leased Mi 17 a better bet… or not…… who knows.

    Canadian Armed Forces Maritime S92 is delayed and over budget, mostly due to systems integration I believe, not necessarily S92 airframe / engine combo – but S92 is no more of a silver bullet than H60 family.

    So your an unabashed UH60 fanboy, no problem, at least your chosen kit has a pedigree the NH90 fanboys are lacking, but as for: “supremely reliable, impressively flexible, and survivable in a way that no Lynx or derivative model is.” I doubt you can really substantiate that last sentence with hard evidence, as way more UH60’s have been shot at than Lynx’s BUT just to finish on a contrary note I will just say one thing – “Blackhawk down!”

  10. it’s good but it’s not that good. put it in a 3 way contest with NH90 and AW149 and see what happens. I’m fan of all 3 however the newer models will out due to greater avionics and the ability to fly in incumbrent weather. The joy of watching other countries play with the 90 is they can find out all the faults (never buy the mark 1 of anything)!! I’m sure one of the faults of the 90 that hasn’t come up on here yet is the ground clearance i believe it’s something silly like 16cms, a few belly strikes have been reported.
    Yes if we had gone for it in ’86 it might of made a difference, just look at the clusterfudge when we put the RR into apache, if we tried it now it would be ganners just in time to pick up the last man out!!

  11. I think We’re getting slight off topic here.

    The original question was “how much is a blackhawk”

    The answer, varies depending on what blackhawk you want, how many you want and what you plan to do with them in the long term.

    I then positied that Black Hawk was better than Lynx Wildcat in Afghanistan, on the basis that it was available, and low cost versions could have contributed something to theatre, even if they werent a long time proposition.

    As to what “better” in the long run?
    Its not really an answerable question, because “better” isnt that specific.

  12. Yes but Dom, your contradicting your own question:

    “I then posited that Black Hawk was better than Lynx Wildcat in Afghanistan, on the basis that it was available, and low cost versions could have contributed something to theatre, even if they werent a long time proposition.”

    They are different size aircraft, UH60 does NOT come in a dedicated armed scout variant, which is what Army Lynx Wildcat is SUPPOSED to be (not a section transport); Wildcat is not a UOR for capabilities specifically for Afghanistan etc – so yes UH60M might be more useful than Wildcat in theatre RIGHT NOW, but its not an apples to oranges comparison – so with respect to “how much is a Blackhawk” what does comparing it to Wildcat add to the conversation ?

    Is there any organisation that could wet lease UH60’s to the UK ?

    What would be the cost benefit analysis trade off’s in getting a small number of UH60’s into Afghanistan, either 5 years ago, or next month compared to a refit of the SK 4 Jungly fleet or lease of Mi17’s ????

  13. “What would be the cost benefit analysis trade off’s in getting a small number of UH60′s into Afghanistan, either 5 years ago, or next month compared to a refit of the SK 4 Jungly fleet or lease of Mi17′s ????”

    Very good questions.
    Ones DC has tried to ask (More or Less), the response to which has overwhelmingly been, Lynx Wildcat is the future Army Helicopter.

  14. Do we have figures for the number of downed helicopters in A-stan? I believe the Russian/Soviet 14.5mm is “very popular” and common over there.

    And those of you saying about the size of Blackhawk fleet are right. The US Army is going to update 900 (nine hundred) airframes to its new standard. 900! And that figure doesn’t include the USN’s SeaHawks or the Coastie’s JayHawks. Has technology moved on that far that basic Blackhawk design is out of date. No not really. Air is still air. Perhaps parts of the airframe could be replaced with composites. Engines are more powerful, but when has that been a problem. If SeaKings, a 1950s design, can gain from new rotor blades why can’t a design from the 1970s.

    The Blackhawk was borne of the experience of Vietnam. At the height of American involvement in SE Asia there were more helicopters in theatre than anywhere else in the world.

    Does that mean we should by Blackhawk? Not if we can get something cheaper that does the job nearly as well. But…

  15. There seems a lot of overlap doesn’t there in helicopter types? Or is it me?

    Sorry. Just a thought.

  16. I would just like to emphasize Jed’s point that the Wildcat is envisaged as a scout helicopter by the Army not a Battlefield transport so it does not compete with Blackhawk.

    Lynx 9 is really a modest compromise. A utility helicopter created from surplus Lynx 7 airframes after the arrival of the Apache. The Lynx 9a is a relatively cost effective upgrade for Hot n High.

    Both Lynx 9a and Sea King upgrades probably offered better value for money than a Blackhawk purchase in the short term.

    It’s pretty clear that pinning down costs for helicopters, especially american-built one is a major research project.

  17. I read the results of the Austrian Black Hawk vs. Cougar (Super Puma) trials. As far as I can remember the Black Hawk proved to be a bit superior mostly because it was more militarised (better protection of fuel lines and similar advantages).

  18. There’s a lot of very interesting comments, and although it seems the Blackhawk is an excellent aircraft it does have a number of short comings.

    Nicholas, the arrangement of the wheels, given the track length, is detrimental as it restricts the size of the landing zone footprint. Especially so onboard ship. I believe the undercarriage layout was chosen because it provided the best optimum design for crashworthiness. However, designs and materials have improved significantly allowing the ‘high tail’ design of modern helos to be just as effective.

    Personally I believe that the Blackhawk design could be improved by relocating the aft fuel cells under the floor and allowing greater internal volume. It would also put more protective material between the passengers and any SA fire coming into the floor. But that is just my own honest opinion.

    Also, I believe the Australians had a lot of trouble when they first introduced it due to the fact that it is a very complex aircraft.

  19. Are you saying Australians are stupid?

    Seriously there is no reason why a shape that is aerodynamically proven can’t be constructed out of newer materials that are stronger and lighter.

    One of the things I don’t understand about aircraft design is that certain things have to be tested to the nth degree. But it when it suits airframes can be chopped about, stuff added etc. etc.

    I bet if the FAA had asked for the “their” GR7s to be fitted APG65 the MoD would have found some reason to have the modification tested to death (and so prevent it entering service.)

    The Blackhawk has been extensively put to the only real test that counts, combat. Before I go off to check stats I bet you stand a better chance of walking away from a Blackhawk crash than many other types. Sure you will be hacked to death by a machete wielding crowd of angry Third Worlders, but you will have survived the initial crash.

  20. Helicopter shapes don’t need to be very aerodynamic. We’re talking abut biplane speeds here.

    Changing the materials requires a huge tail of changes; new crash tests, new durability tests, new design of connections, new electromagnetic and electric influence tests, new documentation, new tools, new centre of gravity, new vibration tests, …

  21. Not to mention that aren’t really that many materials that you can readily change to. What you have to understand about the aeronautics industry is that it is extremely conservative, and even that is an understatement. They will not change materials or procedures if they are not completely sure that it will absolutely massive dividends relatively speaking. Material science has a long way to go, a really long way, popular science figures who know of no real science like to fling out ‘nano tubes’ as a viable option for materials. What nano-tubes?! They are still at the R&D stage and they wont be in proper production for years to come.

    This is not so much about changing materials but inventing completely new ones, and there are some pretty cool things being studied like ARALL (aramid aluminium laminate) composites. But as Sven points outs, this needs so much surrounding research and procedure that it is going to take a couple of decades before we see something truly revolutionary in rotor aircraft. And if you think the V22 Osprey is revolutionary you are wrong – it has been going for well over 30 years and even before the yanks got it of the ground the russians were playing around with the concept (and NASA as early as 1964).

  22. A reengineering of an existing aircraft with composite material has been piloted, if not fully developed, during the 80’s with the ACAP program in the US

    I suspect that the reluctance to go ahead with the programme stems more from the unresolved issues with repair of battlefield damage of composites, plus the lack of opportunity to “design in” some of the benefits, eg tuning of the structure to reduce airframe vibration

  23. A good article, and one which I wish more journalists read. Its very easy to get hung up on figures like 8m without doing the basic research into why its simply not a runner.

    Another point worth noting is that due to our beloved former Dear Leader, we have had to merge the two lynx replacement programmes. Previously the RN and Army were going to buy two seperate programmes, but due to the cuts earlier this decade, they were merged into one.

    This had the effect of effectively forcing the hand for the Lynx – the RN surface fleet is designed to operate Lynx and Merlin and bringing Blackhawk in would be incredibly expensive to modify (if it could be done) and would require major refits to all surface ships to modify their aircraft handling and maintenance facilities. The answer would have been to buy Blackhawk & Seahawk, but that would mean costing too much money, which is why Lynx won out – once the long term costs are looked into Lynx should become cheap enough to be a viable solution.

    The other point to remember is what is the Lynx designed to do? Originally it was a cheap anti tank helicopter with limited battlefield taxi capability, for use in Germany. The transport helo fleet then came from Pumas, Chinooks and Wessexes. Nowadays its role is primarily small scale troop carrying and general communications duties as was carried out by the Gazelle, which is due to go out of service shortly.

    I’ve often heard commanders on the ground admit that in many ways Lynx is ideal, as its small size means its easier to use to move small groups around – replace it with a larger helo and it loses the flexibility, and it becomes less efficient to move small numbers of people. They’ve argued that operationally, its more effective to have a small helo for certain duties than a large one.

    Blackhawk provides a good transport capability, but the current ‘future rotary strategy’ means we should end up with a well balanced transport helo fleet of about 70-80 Chinooks and roughly 30 Merlins (which is a superb piece of kit to fly in). There is little sense in buying Blackhawk, which is in direct competition for roles with Merlin, as it would merely double up supply chains and logistics. As CAS has noted, he wants to get to a ‘two of everything’ fleet, to ensure minimal stores holdings and supply chains.

    This bizarrely would actually increase to a degree serviceability in theatre, as with the reduced helo types around in theatre, there is more space on the airbridge to fly spares out. Run multiple helo types out here and it can take longer to get spares out, and can make it harder to generate airframes.

    So, while Blackhawk is a great piece of kit, I don’t see the need for it when we already have two good transport helo fleets in service.

  24. Australians, stupid? You didn’t hear it from me!

    One thing we should remember is that the Blackhawk relies on crashworthy seating, the same type will be fitted in the Lynx Wildcat.

    Sit on the floor of a Blackhawk and you’ll leave the crash site on a stretcher with a neck brace and a spinal board!

  25. Do the US government not also pocket an X% fee on all Foreign Military Sale deals?

    Also on the subject of extras, I got to see a list of the extras that could be specced on a Boeing airliner a few years ago. Even an apparently simple addition like the intermittent setting for the windshield wipers would cost the customer several thousand dollars per aircraft.

  26. Aerodynamics do play a part in helicopter design………


    I don’t think here actually wants to but Blackhawk. We are just shooting the breeze. And we all are hopefully learning from each other too.

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