UPDATED with Minister Dutton’s comments:
Defence Minister Peter Dutton has announced that the Australian Army will retire its Airbus MRH 90 Taipans some 10 years earlier than planned, and will instead acquire about 40 new Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters.
The Army operates 41 MRH 90s which were acquired under Project AIR 9000 Phases 2 and 4 from 2004, ahead of the UH-60M which was also bid. Based on the German Army’s NH 90 TTH, the MRH 90 entered Army service in 2008 and, despite its speed, range, and troop capacity performance advantages over the Black Hawk, has been plagued with poor availability and a number of fleet-wide groundings in Australian service due to a lack of spares and configuration management issues.
“The performance of the MRH90 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,” Minister Dutton said in a December 10 release. “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.
“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,” he added.
The Royal Australian Navy also operates six MRH 90s that were acquired under AIR 9000 Phase 6 and entered service in 2010. But it too has suffered from availability issues, and it was announced in October that the Navy will acquire an additional batch of 12 MH-60R Romeo Seahawks under Project SEA 9100 Phase 1 to replace its MRH 90s and to augment the 23 Romeos already in service.
Because of the MRH 90’s poor availability, the Army A and B Squadrons of the Townsville-based 5Avn have been forced to lease two Leonardo AW139s from Toll/Helicorp under the uncapitalised Plan Corella to augment its fleet. This will allow them to maintain training and currency throughput, and to conduct non-operational transport missions in support of Queensland-based ADF units.
Army’s 6Avn based at Holsworthy in Sydney received its first MRH 90s in 2019 which were to replace its 1980s-era S-70A-9 Black Hawks from mid-2020. But the Taipan has reportedly also proven to be unsuitable for the special forces support role in which 6Avn specialises, and the older Black Hawks have had to be extended until at least the end of 2021.
ADBR understands initial enquiries into the pricing and availability of the new Black Hawks were made in mid-2020, shortly after the Government’s Force Structure Plan (FSP) was published. The FSP had outlined a plan to acquire a new Long Range Rotorcraft from 2028, and a Next Gen Rotorcraft – the MRH 90’s replacement – from 2034, but neither of these planned capabilities aligns with the December 10 announcement.
ADBR also understands the new Black Hawk acquisition may see the planned Project LAND 2097 Phase 4 special forces light helicopter program deferred or possibly cancelled, as the Black Hawks are considered a more urgent requirement.
The Black Hawk has been developed into multiple utility and special operations support models, the current models being the UH-60M transport and MH-60M special operations helicopter, and the US Air Force’s new HH-60W combat rescue helicopter (CRH). While the UH/MH-60M and HH-60W share the familiar configuration of the venerable H-60/S-70 Black Hawk which entered service with the US and the ADF in the 1980s, most of its systems and structure have been substantially enhanced.
The UH/MH-60M uses the Rockwell Collins Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS) which is shared with the CH-47F and MH-47G Chinook, greater fuel capacity, has a revised airframe structure with greater use of composites and fewer parts, new rotor blades, and more powerful GE T700 engines.
The MH-60M is configured for the special operations support role, and entered service with the US Army in 2008, based on the UH-60M, it adds an air-to-air refuelling capability, weapons stations, sensors, and enhanced communications.
Defence sources tell ADBR that a formal request to the US Government for the new aircraft is imminent. As the acquisition will likely be done through the US foreign military sales (FMS) mechanism, notification of the proposed sale to Congress by the US State Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency will be required before a contract for the aircraft can be signed.