The Commonwealth government is pushing to replace Army’s Taipan fleet with up to 40 Black Hawk helicopters, tipped to save Defence billions of dollars.
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Defence Connect can confirm that the Commonwealth government has sent a letter of request to the United States for the purchase of up to 40 Sikorsky-built UH-60 Black Hawks to replace the Australian Army’s fleet of 47 Airbus-built MRH-90 Taipan helicopters.
The request has been made as part of a provisional assessment process designed to inform a prospective purchase.
Representatives from Sikorsky Australia – a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin – have informed Minister for Defence Peter Dutton during preliminary discussions that six Black Hawk helicopters could be available from the company’s 2022 global production line, with the remaining helicopters potentially delivered by 2026.
This comes amid ongoing concerns over the troubled MRH-90 Taipan fleet, currently in service as Army’s utility aircraft.
The MRH-90 Taipan fleet is used for Special Operations and to provide maritime support capability for the Royal Australian Navy. The fleet is deployed on a range of missions, including humanitarian aid and disaster relief both within Australia and in the Indo-Pacific more broadly, and for key combat operations.
However, the Taipan project has not met contracted availability requirements in light of a series of technical shortcomings.
In June, Defence suspended flying operations of its 47 Taipan helicopters as a “safety precaution” after an issue relating to the aircraft’s IT support system was identified.
This was the latest in a series of technical incidents associated with the Taipan’s operation.
In 2019, a tail rotor vibration forced the MRH-90 helicopters based at HMAS Albatross to be grounded.
This followed a precautionary landing on HMAS Adelaide from an Army MRH-90 a fortnight earlier, prompting officials to temporarily suspend the entire fleet.
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) again listed the MRH program (AIR 9000 Phase 2, 4 and 6) as a “project of concern” in its 2019-20 Defence Major Projects report.
The program has also exceeded operational cost expectations ahead of its planned withdrawal from service in 2037.
Initially, an annual sustainment cost of approximately $123 million (2021 AUD outturned) was anticipated, however this has now more than doubled to approximately $300 million.
Costs are also expected to increase with scheduled upgrade programs for the global fleet to address operational and obsolescence issues.
This would have taken the total cost of operating the fleet until 2037 to $9.5 billion when including a mid-life upgrade.
Switching to Black Hawks is expected to save the Commonwealth government $2.5 billion, with acquisition and sustainment costs estimated to total $7 billion between 2022-37.
Minister Dutton reflected: “The performance of the MRH-90 Taipan has been an ongoing and well-documented concern for Defence and there has been a significant effort at great expense to try to remediate those issues.
“It is critically important there is a safe, reliable and capable utility helicopter available for our service men and women into the future, with reasonable and predictable operating costs.”
Meanwhile, the UH60 Black Hawk is billed as the most widely used utility helicopter variant in the world, with the UH60M variant in service with the US Army and other nations for over a decade.
“The Australian government is exercising its right to understand what options are available to provide the necessary capability at a reasonable cost into the future,” Minister Dutton added.
Procurement options will be subject to government consideration once all the relevant information is made available.
This news comes just two months after the US State Department greenlit the Commonwealth government’s request to purchase an additional 12 MH-60R Multi-Mission (Seahawk) helicopters, also built by Sikorsky.
The deal, expected to cost an estimated US$985 million ($1.3 billion), will take the total size of the fleet to 36.
The bolstered Seahawk order was also considered as a response to issues associated with operating the Taipan fleet.
[Related: Defence suspends MRH-90 Taipan operations ]