The Australian Defence Force’s Project AIR 9000 MRH-90 acquisition project and service entry process for the Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy commenced in 2004 and today remains on the Government’s Projects of Concern List.
But the capability is starting to make ground, both in the air, and in the support and sustainment system’s ability to provide sufficient airframes for the increased tasking in recent months. Technical issues, contractual disagreements, multiple sub-variants and production lines leading to inconsistent spares and logistics support, and an adverse Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report all contributed to years of bad press for the MRH-90. In addition to this, order cancellations and service entry delays in European partner nations has seen Australia essentially the de-facto lead operator of the type.
But despite its painful entry to service, and perhaps because the ADF has had to take the lead, the MRH-90’s availability and rates of effort have been improving rapidly in the past 18 months. A positive culture The Australian Army’s Townville-based 5 Aviation Regiment (5 Avn) has forged ahead with developing the MRH-90’s maturity and reliability. To this end, the regiment underwent a restructure in early 2017 in an effort to realise greater efficiencies and to bring out the best in the helicopter.
There are two MRH-90 flying units, A Squadron and B Squadron, while C Squadron is the sole Boeing CH-47F Chinook unit. The regiment also has a Combat Logistics Support Squadron which provides refuelling, aircraft tugs and drivers, logisticians, mission support, and other support tasks to all three flying units and the maintenance organisations.
A key change to the maintenance organisation this year was the addition of the Delta Technical Support Troop (DTST), a ‘baseline’ organisation staffed by 35 Airbus technical and support staff. The DTST essentially ‘owns’ six aircraft upon which it performs maintenance, and these aircraft are cycled through the two MRH-90 flying squadrons to ensure each is able to field six helicopters of its own.
The regiment’s commanding officer, LTCOL Kim Gilfillan has overseen the restructure, and has injected an air of positivity into the culture at Townsville. “The MRH-90 Taipan has had a lot of bad press over the years, but there’s a lot of people who have done a lot of hard work, and we’re doing our little bit now and we’re seeing some good results,” he said during a visit to Townsville in September. “I guess I think it’s a bit of a story of a long journey that’s leading to success…but we are getting a lot more out of the aircraft this year than we have previously.”
This change has seen the MRH-90’s projected rate of effort (ROE) for 2017 double that of 2016, with between 400 and 500 hours of airframe hours per month now consistently being logged. Many of these additional hours have been logged under operational conditions. The MRH-90 made its operational debut in early 2016 during Operation Fiji Assist, the support effort in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Winston which struck the island nation in February 2016.
The lessons learned from Fiji Assist were then applied earlier this year when MRH-90s of B SQN made two deployments to Papua New Guinea, one for VIP tasking to support the visit of the Australian Governor General and Prime Minister in April, and the other in June to support the PNG elections. The PNG effort was immediately followed by Talisman Saber 17, in which A SQN played a major role, deploying to the exercise area onboard an LHD where it worked alongside ARH Tigers, US Army Black Hawks and Apaches, as well as RNZAF NH90s, and achieved a 95 per cent availability rate during the exercise.
LTCOL Gilfillan recognised Airbus’s contribution to the increased ROE. “It’s not just the regiment, Airbus is really pitching in too,” he added. “They’re not quite where they need to be yet, but they’re travelling in the right direction and they’ve provided some positive improvements to our supply chain which is making a big difference. I think generating a positive relationship with Airbus is vitally important – it’s really important, in a complex activity like aviation that everyone works together for a common goal, and that’s what I think we’re doing.”
The Airbus presence at Townsville was bolstered in early 2017 at the company’s expense with the formation of the DTST. “Availability is the challenge for MRH-90 and we…have placed 35 additional people into Townsville at the start of this year to improve the availability,” Airbus Group Australia Pacific managing director Tony Fraser told media back on June 11. “That makes a total of 41 [personnel]… in Townsville, and that enables Defence to focus on maintaining the aircraft but also preparing for combat operations … and all the training activities that go with that, and [with] industry being able to provide a baseline level of availability of the aircraft.”
“It’s not just about having extra ‘spanner swingers’,” MAJ Andrew Mitchell, 5 Avn’s operations officer, said. “It’s about having Airbus understand our parts supply issues from a Europe-based aviation company, to get stuff to Australia when we need it, and to fault-find more in-depth problems. It’s been a huge success just from that perspective.”
“That’s been a really successful organisational change,” MAJ James Pidgeon, officer commanding A SQN noted. “Having a contractor workforce enables us to work more closely with Airbus, and really strengthens that relationship I think. That change has produced excellent results in terms of flying hours and availability.” MAJ Mitchell, meanwhile, described the MRH-90 as “a generational shift” because it has both calendar and hours-based maintenance requirements.
Previous aircraft such as the UH-1H and the Black Hawk essentially only required hours-based services. “Part of the challenge is trying to align those,” he said. “When an aircraft is in a hangar getting maintenance done on it, we need to where possible align its hours-based and its calendar-based maintenance to be done at the same time.”
Another change was the establishment of a regular flying “battle rhythm” when the flying units are in barracks at Townsville, which essentially means the regiment is available for non-operational support flying between set hours. This has allowed aircrew, maintainers and support personnel to establish family life routines away from work.
Another change was the centralisation of the mission support personnel instead of each unit having its own mission support cell. This has allowed the regiment to surge that support for operations, while providing better training during the set barracks flying windows. “Because of this new battle rhythm, the serviceability of the aircraft now is so good we’re actually putting more lines of aircraft on over a shorter window, and flying just as much or more,” said MAJ Mitchell. “That’s the perfect training solution of all when in barracks.”
“The Taipan is a fantastic helicopter, it’s the most capable helicopter I’ve ever flown, and we can make it work,” said LTCOL Gilfillan. “Some of the real positives about the Taipan are the fully-integrated digital cockpit which is also integrated into the HMD (Top Owl helmet mounted display). So not only do I have my symbology in my helmet but I can also get FLIR (forward looking infrared) displayed in the helmet, and there’s not that many aircraft in the world that have that kind of capability.”
Another benefit is its far better range on internal fuel when compared to the Black Hawk. “When you start putting external ‘jugs’ on the side, you restrict the weapons systems you can carry and the extra drag slows you down.”
Meanwhile, work continues on rectifying some of its recognised faults, including a new gun mount which will alleviate egress problems. “For the trooping role and air assault role its not a significant issue,” said MAJ Pidgeon. “There is a Taipan gun mount project to replace that [interim gun mount] which will much reduce the problem and also allow minigun fitment,” he added. “That’s specifically to enable the special operations role as MRH gets closer to 6 Avn, but we’ll be quite happy to have that on our aircraft as well.”
“In the end, Taipan is the aircraft the Australian Government chose to acquire, and we have a duty to make it work,” said LTCOL Gilfillan in closing. “What I’m trying to do is to be positive about the aircraft, because positive thinking is far more likely to bring success than negative thinking. But it’s a fantastic helicopter – I am not only very positive about the aircraft itself, but also in our ability to make it work. It’s been a journey and we have positive momentum, and I’m excited about what the possibilities are.”
This article appeared in the September-October 2017 edition of the Australian Defence Business Review.