Ahead of the Paris Air Show, a life-size mockup of Airbus Helicopters military version of the H160 was revealed by the French Ministry of Armed Forces, which expects the helicopter to enter service two years earlier than expected.

"The HIL program will be launched as early as 2021, one year ahead the military programming law [ed: the multiannual defense budget plan voted by the French parliament] forecast,” said Florence Parly, the French minister of Armed Forces, during a visit to future assembly line in Marignane, southern France, on May 27, 2019. “This will allow launching the HIL in our forces two years earlier, starting from 2026”. The minister also revealed that the helicopter would be known as Guépard (Cheetah) within the French forces.

Heavier (6 tons), faster (330 km/h top speed) and with a large array of weapons, the Guépard is due to replace several decades-old helicopters within the three branches of the French military, such as the Gazelle, the Fennec, and the Dauphin/Panther. It will be powered by the Safran Arrano engine, which outputs 1,100 shaft horsepower.

The total order should include 169 Guépard helicopters: 80 for the Army, which should receive them first, 49 for the Navy and 40 for the Air Force. The new helicopters are expected to cover a variety of missions, including missions of armed reconnaissance, fire support, infiltration of Special Forces or medical evacuation for the Army, anti-ship, naval protection or maritime rescue missions for the Navy, and to provide airspace protection, search and rescue, deep action or intelligence missions for the Air Force. With a common helicopter whose equipment will be adapted according to each mission, France expects to significantly reduce maintenance and operational costs of its helicopters while increasing their disponibility.

Despite the polyvalence of the Guépard, the French military has yet to find a replacement for its Puma (which entered service in 1978!) and Super Puma/Cougar transport helicopters.

“Our fleet of Puma helicopters is out of date, with insufficient availability to cover the strong operational requirement overseas,” said General Philippe Lavigne, Chief of Staff for the French Air Force in a hearing with the National Assembly. “It is planned to replace the Puma by 2028. The Air Force is proposing an innovative way to replace them more quickly at controlled costs”. This “innovative” alternative has yet to be revealed.

With the Airbus X6 program suspended indefinitely, France could either rely on British Chinooks or German Sea Stallions for heavy transport helicopters.

The civilian version of the H160 should enter the market in 2020. As for the maiden flight of the first H160M prototype, it is expected in 2023.