The Australian Army will reportedly ask industry to provide an Army interim helicopter capability (AIHC) to complement the MRH 90 Taipans of the Townsville-based 5 Aviation Regiment (5Avn).
Under a program internally dubbed ‘Plan Corella’, the Army will reportedly ask at least three companies to tender to provide a set number of hours per year to 5Avn for an initial period of two years. The AIHC will help maintain training throughput, and will conduct non-operational transport tasks due to ongoing shortfalls in the budgeted flying hours of the MRH 90 fleet.
While the Portfolio Budget Statements in the 2018-19 Defence Annual Report doesn’t separate Army and Navy MRH 90 flying hours, it shows the fleet of 47 aircraft fell 1,200 hours or nearly 15 per cent short of its budgeted allocation of 8,430 hours.
Given the increased tasking of the ADF to support severe weather event recovery efforts and humanitarian and disaster relief missions in recent years – particularly the 2019/20 fire season and the ADF’s contribution to the COVID-19 response – rotary-wing support to future operations such as these is likely to be in high-demand. Therefore, the interim capability will mitigate risk and improve the availability of Army’s aviation assets.
Industry sources tell ADBR that the interim requirement calls for a helicopter in the six tonne class, and that the Leonardo AW139 is understood to be the favoured platform. ADBR further understands a tender to lease about three machines and to provide training and a deep level of sustainment and flightline support is expected to be released soon, and that at least three companies are likely to respond.
ADBR exclusively reported in July that the Navy is looking to relinquish its six MRH 90s – possibly as soon as early 2021 – in favour of a new type due to ongoing serviceability and availability issues. But with the favoured replacement – reported to be the Sikorsky MH-60S ‘Sierra’ Knighthawk or additional MH-60R ‘Romeo’ Seahawks – unlikely to be available before the 2024 timeframe, an interim leased capability may also be sought for Navy.
This is not the first time the ADF has inducted an interim helicopter capability to complement fleet flying hours. The Navy leased and operated three AgustaWestland A109Es from 2007 to 2012 and then four Bell 429s from 2012 to 2018 under the two-phased Retention and Motivation Initiative (RMI1 & RMI2) during the Fleet Air Arm’s protracted transition to the MRH 90, MH-60R Romeo, and the Airbus H135-based Helicopter Aircrew Training System (HATS).
Army’s 6 Aviation Regiment (6Avn) has also seen delays in incorporating the MRH 90 into its dedicated special forces support role, and has extended the service lives of some of its S-70A-9 Black Hawks until the end of 2021 to cover any capability shortfalls. But ADBR understands the Black Hawks cannot be extended beyond 2021, and the special operations rotary wing (SORW) light helicopter planned to be acquired under Project JP 2097 Phase 4 is not planned to enter service before 2024.