The Australian Defence Force will scrap its entire fleet of troubled MRH-90 Taipan helicopters 16 years ahead of schedule, in favour of a new fleet of US Blackhawks and Seahawks.
The acquisition and sustainment of up to 40 Blackhawks for Army and 12 Seahawks for Navy, both manufactured by Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorsky, is expected to cost $7 billion.
However, the move could see Defence save up to $2.5 billion by 2037 – the initial planned retirement date of the Taipan fleet – given the costly maintenance required on the Taipans. Meanwhile, the Blackhawk fleet is expected to remain in operation into the 2040s.
These savings are anticipated despite Taipans being assembled in Australia, while the US-manufactured Sikorsky helicopters will be off-the-shelf, acquired under the US Foreign Military Sales program.
According to media reports, Defence Minister Peter Dutton has already informed Taipan manufacturer Airbus of the Australian government’s decision to retire all 47 of its Taipan helicopters.
Once regarded as “an extraordinarily advanced helicopter” by Chief of Defence Force Angus Campbell, the Taipan fleet, which entered service for the ADF in 2017, has been consistently plagued with operational and performance problems.
There have been at least nine occasions where the entire Taipan fleet has been grounded by Defence, for periods of between one and three months at a time. This has seen Defence forced to lease commercial helicopters to complete basic air lift tasks.
Most recently in June, Defence suspended flying operations of its Taipan fleet as a “safety precaution” after an issue relating to the aircraft’s IT support system was identified.
Earlier, 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 similarly temporarily suspend the entire fleet.
Currently, the Taipan serves as Army’s utility aircraft, supporting Special Operations, and provides maritime support capability for the Royal Australian Navy.
However, Defence has previously acknowledged that the MRH-90 Taipan fleet has not met contracted availability requirements and has exceeded operational cost expectations ahead of its planned withdrawal from service in 2037.
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 ANAO stated there remains an “ongoing inability” to meet materiel capability delivery milestones and performance criteria relating to the Taipan’s gun mount, aero-medical evacuation equipment and the Common Mission Management System.
Speaking of the decision, Minister Dutton said: “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.
Additional reporting by Charbel Kadib.