MAJGEN Jeremy King, Head Land Capability at the Department of Defence, sits down with Defence Connect’s Liam Garman to dispel the myths surrounding the Australian Army’s acquisition of the UH-60M Black Hawk.
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Since the Commonwealth confirmed the long-speculated acquisition of the Sikorsky made UH-60M Black Hawk in mid-January, media pundits have charged the Australian Defence Force with failing to develop an adequate model to sustain the retiring MRH-90 Taipan fleet leaving the capability unfit for service.
The accusations have surfaced despite the shortcomings of the NH90 helicopter - the original NATO Helicopter Industries troop-carrying capability from which the MRH-90 Taipan was modified - being detailed to no end the world over.
Just over the ditch, the New Zealand Defence Force has been mired in a decade long debate over the viability of the product and its ability to operate in the Pacific theatre.
In 2012, then New Zealand Auditor-General Lyn Provost laid bare the failings of the aircraft against requirements. Complaints included its inability to operate in the snow as well as the tendency for the aircraft to suffer damages.
Since then, the Swedish Armed Forces has mulled the future of the aircraft while the German Bundeswehr’s fleet was in the spotlight for availability concerns.
Considering these openly reported failures which can be found with little more than a Google search, perhaps the Commonwealth and the Australian Army deserve warm commendation for having the foresight to address the MRH-90 issue front on.
Speaking to Defence Connect, Head Land Capability at the Department of Defence, Major General Jeremy King detailed the Commonwealth and Australian Army’s decision criteria for replacing the MRH-90 Taipan with the UH-60M Black Hawk, dispelling the media myths that have surrounded the acquisition.
Having served as an engineer across both Black Hawks and MRHs, MAJGEN King explains that no other country has achieved the flight hours on the Tactical Troop variant (TTH) of the MRH the Australian Defence Force has; at last count more than 55,000 hours.
Such familiarity with the product provides the ADF with unique insights into the operational limitations of the capability.
“We sit somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 hours ahead of any other nation in the world that has flown the MRH-90,” MAJGEN King explained.
“So it’s not from a lack of trying to make that platform meet our contracted requirements and our operational requirements.
“Army, Navy and Australian industry have worked enormously hard to make the MRH platform effective.”
One of those critical limitations according to MAJGEN King is the MRH-90’s cost restrictions. He predicts that the Black Hawk could reduce costs to a third of their current cost per flying hour of the MRH-90 in Australia.
“We need a capability that meets our preparedness requirements. It needs to include both availability and affordability.
“The cost per flying hour of the MRH is well documented. We believe that we can achieve levels of cost per flying hour on the Black Hawk that are commensurate with what the US Army is getting.
“That will be around $10,000 to $14,000 per hour, or a third of what we’re paying now.”
While the cost has hampered the ability for the Australian Army to employ the capability at scale, MAJGEN King explained that the MRH-90 was unable to fully support to Australia’s special operations capability.
“We have done everything we can to make the MRHs as fit for purpose as we can for the range of special force’s mission profiles,” MAJGEN King explained.
“However, there are well documented aspects such as our inability to conduct roping whilst operators engaged the MRH gun.”
A parliamentary research paper released in 2021 detailed that not only could warfighters not leave the helicopter when “then guns are in use,” but that the seats and harness “cannot accommodate personnel wearing combat gear.”
“We have simply been unable to perform some of special operations roles as well as we would like.”
Issues have not just been limited to Army, with the MRH-90 delayed in reaching FOC for the Royal Australian Navy with a range of concerns including the cargo hook.
In turning to the UH-60M Black Hawk, MAJGEN King explained that the mature capability can rapidly enter service with limited modification.
This includes Australian special operations tasks which can already be undertaken on the Black Hawk, with special operations teams already having a history of tactics, techniques and procedures on the UH-60M.
However, MAJGEN King also flagged the the limited transportation options to deliver the MRH-90s to theaters of operation.
“We can only fit a single MRH in a C-17, whereas we can fit three Black Hawks inside a C-17,” he explained.
Amid media speculation surrounding the acquisition, the head of land capability encourages a frank and sober assessment of Australian defence requirements.
“We can’t afford to be emotive or misty eyed around platforms that we’ve currently got in service that we need to replace,” he explained.
The first three Black Hawks are scheduled for delivery in June of this year to support the special operations aviation task unit in Holsworthy.