$72M per aircraft: Why is “Tiger” Attack helicopter so expensive?

The Eurocopter Tiger attack helicopters deployed by France and Spain will undergo a mid-life update to boost capabilities at a cost of €65.8 million ($71.9 million) per aircraft.

General military aircraft need to be extended and upgraded after a certain period of service in order to maintain combat effectiveness. Recently it was reported that France and Spain ink deals to upgrade their Tiger attack helicopter to improve their connectivity, precision, and firepower capabilities. The new variant will be designated as Tiger mk3.

But the most surprising thing is not the upgrade of the plane itself, but its price. Because the degradation will cost $71.9 million per helicopter and France cannot afford to spend over $4 billion to modernize all 67 of its aircraft, so has opted to upgrade just 42 in a first tranche at a cost of €2.8 billion ($3.06 billion), with a 2029 delivery date. The remaining 25 might be upgraded later depending on whether Germany joins in after opting out of the initial upgrade decision.

New Features

Tiger MkIII is a comprehensive upgrade of the European attack helicopter’s systems. Proven in combat, the Tiger is difficult to detect, highly agile, and highly survivable, something operators will continue to benefit from with  the MkIII upgrade. The new standard will allow the platform to be connected to the digital battlefield in order to perform manned-unmanned teaming as well as share tactical information in real time. It will also provide an unrivaled range of weapons (turret gun, laser-guided rockets and missiles) and renewed detection and targeting capabilities. The integration of state-of-the art avionics will reduce the crew’s workload and enable them to be fully focused on mission execution.

Details of Tiger MK3
Details of Tiger MK3

The Tiger MkIII standard configuration will include the integration of the Safran Strix NG sights, the Thales FlytX avionics suite, the Topowl DD helmet-mounted sight display, an Indra IFF upgrade, Thales GNSS, and Safran’s inertial navigation system. The communication suite will be upgraded with Thales’ Contact/Synaps radio and data links dedicated to manned/unmanned teaming. Moreover, for Spain Link16 and SATCOM functionalities will be included. The Spanish Tiger MkIII will be equipped with a battlefield management system and countermeasures provided by Indra, whereas the French Tiger MkIII will be equipped with a battlefield management system by ATOS and countermeasures provided by Thales. The new weapon package for France will include the MBDA MAST-F (Future Tactical Air-to-Surface Missile) and Mistral 3 air-to-air missile. For Spain, new capabilities will  include 70mm guided rockets and a new air to ground missile.

Why the cost is so high?

The Tiger helicopter is a medium-sized armed helicopter jointly developed by France and West Germany, mainly used to deal with the ground forces of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The first Tiger helicopter made its maiden flight in 1991 and was publicly displayed at the Paris Air Show. However, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the development of the Tiger helicopter slowed down significantly, and service time was delayed until 2003. The total cost of the project was $14.5 billion.

The performance of the Tiger Helicopter ranks in the forefront among the armed helicopters in the world, which is reflected in the relatively high overall technical level, the advanced performance of various subsystems, and the high price. According to wikipedia, the price of a single Tiger helicopter is about US$44–48 million. Among the major armed helicopters in the world, only the Apache Longbow is more expensive than Tiger.

Fully equipped Eurocopter Tiger
Fully equipped Eurocopter Tiger

As far as the helicopter upgrade project is concerned, the overall capability of the Tiger helicopter has indeed been significantly improved compared to the past, but there are still problems. The first problem is the extremely high price. No matter which country and which upgrade method is used, the upgrade cost of a single aircraft is as high as more than 70 million US dollars is quite high. With this price you can even buy a brand new AH64E Apache helicopter. 

Second, the current production capabilities and operators of Tiger helicopters are still too small. It has been almost 20 years since it’s introduced and only France, Germany, Spain and Australia are equipped with Tiger gunships. But Australia announced in January 2021 that it would buy the AH64E Apache to replace the Tiger gunship. Australia’s Tiger gunships are armed reconnaissance signals, replacing the original OH58 and UH1 helicopters. In fact, as early as 2016, Australia pointed out that the Tiger armed helicopter will be replaced by other armed reconnaissance helicopters around 2020.

The main problem of Tiger heli is that the overall maintenance difficulty and the price is very high. After all, the price of the Tiger gunship is lower than that of the Apache. But today’s upgrade price is as high as 70 million US dollars, enough to know that the Tiger gunship is an authentic aristocratic gunship. At present, there are many advanced helicopter models available in the international market, and such a high price will only discourage many countries.

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