Eurosatory 2024 – Leonardo unveils the AW249 Fenice, the new Italian Army combat helicopter

Paolo Valpolini

On 11 September 1993 the Agusta A129 Mangusta, the first Italian-made attack helicopter, made its maiden flight. Nearly 40 years later, on 12 August 2022, it was time for its successor, the Leonardo AW249 Fenice, as it will be named by the launch customer, to leave the tarmac of the Vergiate company facility for its maiden flight. Two years later, pre-production aircraft n.4 is being unveiled at the Eurosatory 2024 exhibition. Developed together by industry and the military, namely the Italian Army, the largest part of its content being made by Leonardo and partners in Italy and Europe, the European content is around 80%, the decision to show it in public for the first time at a land exhibition and not at an air show marks well the role of the new chopper, which will definitely be an Army asset

The Italian Army clearly states that the AW249 is a wholly new machine, operating in a totally different scenario, that of Multi-Domain Operations (MDO), with a full digital architecture, and performances that have nothing to do with those of its predecessor, the A129, which requirements were drafted in the 1970s, and which original mission was purely antitank, hopping back and forth between forward base and the FLOT [1] to kill enemy armour in the north-eastern Italian plains. The A129 Mangusta evolved along the years to become the current Italian Army Aviation AH-129D combat helicopter, however its time is nearly over and in 2027 the first seven AW249 will reach the Army Aviation Training Centre in Viterbo, where aircrew and technicians will be formed, before reaching operational units.

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Native requirements are: interoperability, connectivity and multi domain integration; all weather high speed (compared to its predecessor) and manoeuvrability; lethality and accuracy in the deep; crewed-uncrewed teaming (C-UCT); survivability; logistic sustainability and supportability; open architecture and a consistent growth potential.

While much information is being released, numerous other data remain, for the time being, undisclosed. According to Leonardo not mentioning at the current stage some of the subsystems that are being installed on the new helicopter is an Army choice. EDR On-Line will come back to the AW249 topic when this info will be provided.

The flying platform

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The platform look is that of a conventional attack helicopter, with a tandem configuration for gunner and pilot, main and tail rotor, and stub wings for carrying the lethal payload. Most of the dynamic package is that of the AW149, EDR On-Line understanding that while the 14.60 metres diameter rotor [2] remains exactly the same, blades having exceeded the required ballistic tolerance, the same being true for the four-blade tail rotor, the transmission was slightly adapted to accept more power thanks to new bevel gears. However, the drive train is already certified for a 2,500 shp class engine. It is to note that the AW249 maximum take-off mass is 300 kg lower than that of the AW149, respectively 8,300 and 8,600 kg; the latter is a multirole utility helicopter while the Fenice, being a combat helicopter, requires a higher power margin to cope with hot and high responsiveness based on its specific role. The AW249 is powered by two General Electric CT7-8E6 providing 2,503 shp maximum output at take-off and 2,274 shp maximum continuous power, transmission ratings being 3,148 hp All Engine Operating (AEO) take-off and 2,907 hp AEO maximum continuous power. The transmission can run dry for 50 minutes.

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The AW249 engines are fitted with an integral infrared suppressor that considerably reduces the aircraft thermal signatures, no more data being provided. A dedicated Auxiliary Power Unit is installed between the two main turbines and ensures full autonomy when deployed without logistic support, and also allows to restart main engines in flight; this is probably the Safran e-APU, installed on the AW149, which provides 60 kW of power.

The considerable power allows the new helicopter to reach a VNE [3] of 167 knots and at present [4] the declared maximum cruise speed at average mission weight of 155 knots, while the maximum rate of climb is 2,350 ft/min. It has a 2,800 kg maximum payload combining fuel and weapons. Maximum endurance is 4 hours 5 minutes, maximum range being 430 NM. The helicopter can hover out of ground effect at 12,000 ft, take-off and landing ceiling being 15,000 ft while flight ceiling is 20,000 ft.

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Just to highlight how much the Italian Army Aviation will receive an improved platform, the comparison between the AH-129D, the latest evolution of the Mangusta, and the AW249 shows +91% maximum take-off mass, +155% payload, +59% range, and +12% maximum speed, all this with a marginally increased footprint. A distinctive difference between the two aircraft is the main landing gear; in the A129 the whole landing gear was visible, while in the AW249 its elements are mostly blended inside the fuselage. This will not allow to adopt the “Spur Ride” concept to extract personnel, sitting on the main landing gear wheels. EDR On-Line understood that the AW249 will be equipped with two rescue seats that will unfold from the sides to allow extracting the crew of a downed helicopter or other personnel in danger, in a safer and more comfortable way. The new helicopter is certainly wider, width at the stub wing tips being 4.6 versus 3.55 metres, but also cockpit dimensions are greater; accessing the rear and front seats is much easier than in the Mangusta, inside space being also greater, ensuring higher comfort to the crew, the cockpit being also CBRN protected. This allows to cope with today 95 percentile; the minimum height considered for crew members is 1.55 metres, maximum one being 1.92 metres, while weight limits are between 50 and 115 kg. The cockpit is characterised by a 20-inch main touch screen. So, let us switch to avionics.

Avionics, the real quantum jump

Compared to the previous machine, here the avionics is fully embedded, and together with sensors and communication systems available it allows to manage the helicopter in a wholly different way, and to make it net-centric, the AW249 becoming a node of the digitised battlespace.

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Based on an open-architecture allowing easy integration of new subsystems, it exploits the computing capacity of multi-core processors of the last generation versus the 386 processor of the A129, the current version not exploiting all that capacity, considerable growth potential being therefore ensured.

The AW249 shall be equipped with several sensors to maximise crew situational awareness in all weather conditions. Theis comprehensive suite includes LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), millimetric wave radar, cooled short and long wave infrared sensors, and a low light TV camera installed on the pilot’s helmet. All images are fed into the on-board computer that fuses them generating, with minimal latency, a synthetic 3D image in any visibility condition that allows the crew to safely navigate in critical situations thanks also to added symbology, and land without harm in white-out and brown-out conditions. The 3D image can be shown on the main screen as well as on the helmet display and provides a 60°x40° field of view, much wider than that of most advanced night vision goggles (NVGs). In fact, NVGs will not be required anymore, however the Army is considering maintaining them, should the crew be forced to conduct escape and evasion, where these would become of key importance.

Beside the surrounding scenario AW249 crew members will be able, thanks to augmented reality, to see on the helmet visor navigation information, data coming from the Battle Management System (BMS), from the sighting unit, from the obstacle warning system, as well as all data related to weapon systems.

Through the menu, each crew member can call up on the main touch screen the data he or she needs, splitting the screen in numerous windows to monitor different types of data. This is also possible to some extent in the helmet, which employs technologies comparable to latest generation military aircraft devices; the OLED high resolution visor allows for example picture in picture mode, that can be exploited to show images captured by a UAS flying well ahead of the helicopter. The visor is also capable to present information (such as a map) in a section of the virtual space around the pilot, accessible by simply turning the head. This allows to increase the number of information immediately available for the crew. 

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“The vision system will also allow to see power cables, beside other terrain obstacles, while threat warning will be provided by laser, radar and electromagnetic warning systems, the IR-based missile warning system being also capable to sense small arms fire down to 7.62 mm calibre, missiles and RPG fire thanks to dedicated software, providing the crew with full situational awareness, which integrated with AI capacity provides a ‘navigation tunnel’ helping the crew to increase effectiveness while minimising risks, allowing all weather high speed manoeuvres,” Luca Colombo, Military Strategic Marketing Specialist for the AW249 at Leonardo Helicopters explained. “AI allows to handle multiple threats providing the best solution, and reducing the crew workload,” he detailed. The AW249 self-protection suite includes chaff and flares, DIRCM (Directional InfraRed Counter Measures) and HFI (Hostile Fire Indicator). Beside enhancing the avionics effectiveness, AI will help in conducting multi-domain operations assisting the crew in conducting the mission.

Reducing the crew workload was one of the key targets; Leonardo developed a wooden mock-up to test ergonomy issues, and a mission simulator, the latter used in conjunction with a thermal camera to measure the crew workload and optimise the Human Machine Interface. The software includes Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms mostly aimed at reducing the crew cognitive workload.

Connectivity with all other players on the battlefield is ensured by a full suite of radios and data links. The AW249 is equipped with COMSEC and TRANSEC communications either Line Of Sight (LOS) or Beyond LOS, through Software Defined Radios operating in all typical frequency bands, New Generation IFF, Tactical Data Link 16, Wide Band Datalink LOS and LTE (Long-Term Evolution) gateway. The SATCOM antenna is already visible on the prototype tail boom, something which was introduced only on the very final upgrades of the A129.

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Two 8.4-inch Enhanced Display Control Units (EDCUs) are located right and left of each crew member; through those two panels the crew can manage the whole helicopter, these replacing circuit breakers and other hardware.

The AW249 will be fitted with an Observation and Targeting System (OTS) that will ensure detection, recognition, and identification ranges compatible with weapon systems installed. Leonardo carried out a thorough testing of four such systems at the Joint Firing Range in Sardinia, in different weather situations and modes, with images shown in parallel on different screens and post-mission analysis. Based on those tests one OTS was selected although it remains unnamed for the time being.

Effectors and ISTAR assets

The AW249 will be fitted with a fully proprietary new generation Battle Management System (BMS), developed by Leonardo, which is fully integrated with the mission system, visionics and armaments.

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Remaining as far as possible from A2/AD bubbles requires long range effectors, considering those that can be carried by a helicopter. The longest range capacity, 16 km, is provided by Rafael’s Spike Extended Range 2 missile, the Spike Long Range 2 reaching targets up to 8 km, the same of the Hydra 70 unguided 70 mm rockets. Guided rockets of the same calibre reach 7 km, while the effective range of the TM197B 20 mm Light Turreted Gun System is around 2 km.

The AW249 has two stub wings each with two hard points plus a wingtip one, the latter used exclusively for carrying two air-to-air missiles per side. All four pylon hard points are “wet” and can therefore accept auxiliary fuel tanks that further increase range and autonomy, for example on escort missions or on ferry flights; auxiliary tanks capacity is based on a customer’s range requirement, while two fuel tanks are hosted within the airframe. Beside fuel tanks, hard points can accept four- or two-missile launchers armed with Spike ER2 or LR2 weapons, as well as rocket pods, with guided or unguided rockets, the mix depending on mission range and weapons balance. All hard points for weaponry can jettison the load in case of emergency. The amount of 20 mm ammunition has been considerably increased compared to the AW129.

The AW249 will not operate as a single platform and will exploit UAS to add information to those acquired through integral sensors, therefore CUC-T was a requirement since inception, different Levels of Interoperability (LOI) being available depending on the type of UAS considered. “The AW249 will have LOI 4 with Tactical UAS, which means the crew will be able to handle the UAS and its payload from the cockpit, but not take-off and landing, while on Strategic UAS that will constitute the longest arm of the helicopter it will have LOI 2, meaning it will only receive images,” Colombo details. Future helicopter launched UAS will obviously be LOI 5, as they will take-off from the chopper itself.

Flight tests

For the time being two AW249 are flying, the AC3 prototype which first flew in August 2022, AC1, which followed in March 2023. AC2 and AC4 are rapidly approaching their maiden flight; AC2 started ground crew runs shortly before Eurosatory. In mid-June 2024 the two aircraft flew a total of some hundred hours, the full development programme requiring around 4,000 flight hours.

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The AC3 has mostly been used to open the flight envelop, to check autopilot basic modes, and to test single engine flight in different conditions, while AC1 has been involved in the first firings in Sardinia, mostly to verify safe separation issues with rocket pods, rockets and gun ammunition, missile firings being planned at a later stage. During the firing campaign, which lasted from November 2023 till February 2024, the new helmet was installed on AC3 and was tested flying nap-of-the-earth (NOE); according to Leonardo A2/AD bubbles should be controlled thanks to multi-domain operations, where time will be the key factor, and speed in all conditions is strictly linked to time.

Three more firing campaigns are planned, the second involving unguided and guided rockets as well as the 20 mm cannon, the third with missiles and to fine-tune ballistic equations, while the fourth will check all weapons on the first production helicopter.

In 2023 the AW249 AC3 underwent hot weather trials in Spain, up to 46°C, but at low altitude, while summer 2024 the same aircraft should see trials at higher altitudes. Cold weather trials will also be part of the programme; the AW249 is not fitted with a Full Ice Protection System, under the Italian customer’s requirements, therefore a data collection campaign will be conducted to generate a table for the crew allowing safe flight in humid and cold weather conditions.

All activities conducted on the simulator and mostly those conducted on the two flying aircraft have already led to some design modifications, but these for the moment remain undisclosed.

The future

As said, the AW249 has considerable growth potential, and Leonardo is already looking forward to introducing new capabilities.

Italy has formed a joint amphibious brigade-level formation, named “National Projection Capacity from the Sea” that includes Navy and Army assets. Among the latter we find attack helicopters, a training scheme to qualify Army crews to operate on board ships having been set up some years ago. The AW249 will definitely take over from its predecessor in this role, and it is already partly ready for naval missions as it has built-in with anti-corrosion features as well as floats, beside the aforementioned APU. Leonardo has already considered solutions for flight deck rigging points, main rotor folding blades, and folding tailplane, and is ready to implement them, however at least for the time being, the Italian Army is not considering them for the time being.

Both the Army and Leonardo are already planning to add further Artificial Intelligence (AI) elements to increase operational capabilities and improve logistics, adding aerial effectors and loitering munitions to the current weaponry, providing the capability to acquire the control of long-range missiles, add counter-UAS effectors, and adopt hard-kill countermeasures. It is to note that some of those issues do not have yet a viable answer and must await the development of adequate systems by third parties to become possible. To our knowledge no long-range missiles can currently switch control to another player on the battlefield, the counter-UAS world is in full development, while hard-kill solutions developed for land vehicles, known as active protection systems, are way too heavy to be adopted on flying platforms. The adoption of loitering munitions and other air-launched effectors, say mini-UAS, should be more feasible in the short-medium term. What will definitely become reality in the short term, providing financing will allow it, is the increase of AI elements for logistics, that will facilitate maintenance, spare handling, and in the end increasing aircraft availability.

As for the BMS, the Italian Army intends evolving the one installed on the AW249 into a system for the whole Army, the first potential vehicle to be fitted with that new system being the A2CS, the infantry fighting vehicle currently in the early development stage.

Italy plans to order a first batch of 48 AW249 attack helicopters, that will be fielded with the 5th “Rigel” and the 7th “Vega” Army Aviation Regiments, part of the Italian Army Airmobile Brigade.

To fully exploit the potential of the new helicopter the Army will revise its TTPs [5], the new machine being meant to operate in the multi domain scenario, with ranges and capabilities that make it a key player in new contested and congested battlefields.

[1] FLOT, Forward Line of Own Troops

[2] The 2.7 metres increase in the rotor diameter will require some infrastructure modifications at the bases that will host the new helicopter

[3] VNE, never exceed speed

[4] The flight envelope has not been fully opened yet

[5] TTPs, Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

Photos courtesy Leonardo and P. Valpolini