The NH90 has the distinction of being the first production helicopter to feature entirely fly by wire flight controls. There are two main variants, the Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) for army use and the navalised NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH); each customer typically has various alterations and customisations made to their own NH90 fleets, such as different weapons, sensors and cabin arrangements, to meet their own specific requirements. In early service, the NH90 has suffered several teething issues, which has in turn delayed active deployment of the type by some operators.
In 1985, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom teamed to develop a NATO battlefield transport and anti-ship/anti-submarine helicopter for the 1990s. The United Kingdom left the team in 1987. On 1 September 1992, NH Industries signed an NH90 design-and-development contract with NAHEMA (NATO Helicopter Management Agency). This agency represented the four participating nations: France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. Portugal later joined the agency in June 2001. Design work on the helicopter started in 1993. The first prototype, PT1, made the type's first flight on 18 December 1995. The second prototype, PT2, first flew on 19 March 1997 and the third prototype, PT3, on 27 November 1998. On 12 December 2002, PT3 became the first helicopter to fly exclusively with fly-by-wire controls following the removal of mechanical back-up controls.
The NH90 was developed into two main variants: the Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) and the NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH). These two main variants share about 75% commonality with each other. Many of the operators have requested specific configurations to their own helicopter fleets, thus each nation's NH90 is effectively customized to the end-user's requirements. During the development phase of the programme in the 1990s, both technical and funding problems were experienced. In June 2000, the partner nations placed a large production order, worth US$8.6 billion, for a total of 366 helicopters. Additional orders have since followed from customers in Europe, Asia, and Australia. By April 2013, a total of 529 NH90s of all variants were on order by various customers.
The NH90 was initially intended to be produced at three exporting final assembly lines (FAL); Cascina Costa in Italy for AgustaWestland, Marignane in France and Donauwörth in Germany for Airbus Helicopters. The Nordic and Australian contracts stipulated production locally (the Nordic ones at Patria in Finland and the Australian ones in Brisbane). Spain has a final assembly line at Albacete. The Marignane assembly line can reportedly complete up to 22 NH90s per year.
Major components are produced by each of the shareholding companies: