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ADF to abandon MRH-90 Taipan fleet

written by Hannah Dowling | December 10, 2021

An Australian Army MRH-90 Taipan helicopter from the 5th Aviation Regiment flies over the town of Cloncurry, Queensland. (Defence/CAPT Carolyn Barnett)

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.

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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.

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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.

Comments (19)

  • Who (if anyone) will be held responsible for the debacle that was the procurement of the NH-90 helicopter. They were a piece of junk from the outset. One thing after another with both the Taipan and Tiger has resulted in the “re-purchase” of 3 fleets of helicopters. The replacement of the Tiger with the Apache, the removal of the naval Taipans to purchase additional MH-60R’s and now the removal of the Army Taipans to replace it with the helicopter it was supposedly so superior to, the Blackhawk.
    If European choppers are anything to go by, thank God, we got out of the submarine purchase. And before anyone goes, “but, but the NH-90 truly ruly is a great helicopter”, it never performed how the manufacturer claimed, it has been grounded so many times and they could never go into battle as they were so unreliable.
    The fact that Australia will now be purchasing 10-12 billion dollars in military choppers to alleviate the current problems is unbelievable. As I said at the start, who (if anyone) will be held responsible for this debacle and the cost to Australian taxpayers is anyone’s guess.

    • Steve

      says:

      Not sure if you saw my posting but at the time the of AIR 9000 Phase 2 selection in 2004 the then Blackhawk did have the power to operate in Afghanistan with a Infantry section whereas the more powerful Taipan did. ADF had to use Chinooks there. It now only in the last few years the Blackhawk now has the increased power. People should look back at the facts at the time.

    • Martin

      says:

      I find it ironic that Sikorsky is a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, who is responsible for the JSF program which was troubled and running so late that the RAAF had to acquire a complete separate Super Hornet capability to bridge the gap between the Hornet and introduction of the JSF. Not sure why European defence equipment is always being targetted as being problematic. Acquisition and sustainment problems are not unique to equipment from Europe. It happens with US gear as well!! Lets just get better at project management, including the way our contracts are written so that contractors are held to account for what they promise regardless of which country they are from!

  • Gordon Mackinlay

    says:

    They are only troubled aircraft in Australia, at this moment in time they are performing extremely well in the appalling conditions of Chad and Burko Faso with the French, flying virtual non-stop combat and logistic tasking days and night and regardless of climatic conditions. The Germans and Spaniards along with the French have long ago solved the so called problems with the egress/gun position ect. They have/are operating from the Artic circle to AFGHAN with great success, and in they operating at at least 15% more performance than expected. The floor problems were in the main solved by the placement of 8mm marine ply slabs on top of it, with when they go into major servicing the enhanced floors will go in. The changing of the logistic system computer controls system has solved (?) the supply glitches, whilst the maritime variant with the changes in maintence (and the new supply system) are in satisfactory service with the Norwegian Coast Guard, German and Dutch navies, while the Italian Navy operating both variants to their great delight. Save the Belgium Land Element who had to get rid of their four, along with a brigade in order to pay for the F-35 force and their horrendous maintain costs. Even the RNZAF has had no dramatic problems. So what went wrong here, poorly skilled workforce to maintain both this and the Taipan (the RAAF should have taken over), Army hierarchy getting involved and changing all the time, a inadequate logistic supply chain which problems can be firmly laid at the Public Service doors, the continual change in the Army reorganisation and equal changing in tactical though did not help. Problem with the aircraft, a problem with Defence (read Army) thought, Yes. The worlds other operators will without a doubt be happy to get them at a bargain basement price, the German media yesterday stated the Heer (army) would be very enthusiastic to acquire 22-24 of the. equally the users of the Taipan would be very happy to acquire them for just components. Personally having flow in them, both here and with the Italians in AFGHAN, a comfortable aircraft , with a very civilised egress down the rear ramp. Never mind Australia will be getting a fifty old design, but, its OK, its what we want, its American!

  • Tony Pearce

    says:

    And the trend of Australian Military buying American hardware and getting rid of European equipment continues.

  • BH

    says:

    I was a little surprised, but it should’ve been expected…
    I’d be interested in hearing more from Defence on Gordon’s point above. What’s the difference between our fleet of Taipans and Tigers compared to all of the other operators…? Have we got higher expectations, or are we doing things differently..? Has Army got some underlying issues that are contributing the problem that aren’t being recognised? It is something that always seems to get missed when this topic comes up.
    On to the Blackhawks… Will we be acquiring enough to cover the carrying capacity that the Taipans were able to carry i.e. enough airframes? And given they are likely to deploy on the LHDs, will then have any marinisation etc. so that they are more suitable than the Taipans were onboard ship. If we now have a 2nd bite, let’s make sure we get what we need as opposed to just what’s available (within reason).

  • AMcG

    says:

    Opportunity for the RNZAF to expand their fleet. Their first NH00 to reach 2000 hours achieved that last month and more air frames spreads the airframe hours out longer. No doubt ours will soldier on for the next 40 years.

  • Peter Hodgkinson

    says:

    What an outrageously stupid decision! The Department of Defence has an appalling history of making bad helicopter acquisition decisions which began with the Karman Sprite of several years ago. This particular helicopter went on to provide valuable service with the RNZN and continues to do so to this day. The NH90 serves other military forces extremely well – why not Australia’s? Could it be a matter of very poor maintenance? I consider that it was a very poor decision to hand over heavy helicopters to the Army which has had a poor safety and maintenance record. Oz may be infatuated with US equipment, but it faces another debacle with the choice of the C130J over the A400M. The latter is a vastly superior aircraft which had outstanding performance in the Afghan evacuation and (on Australia’s doorstep) is much loved by the Royal Malaysian Air Force.

    • Michael

      says:

      Pete what on earth are you talking about. The c-130j was aquired in 1999, 10 years before the a400 even flew for the first time. The a400 is by no means a dream machine and has its own problems, much like many other types when they first roll off the line. On the converse, the raaf has over 50 years (30+ at the time) operating the c-130, why would you shed that level of corporate knowledge to go with an untested platform even if the a400 was available at the time of purchase of the J model. I think you are also forgetting the fact that the raaf operates the c17. A combined fleet of c130 and c17 makes the a400 practically irrelevent. The real crime is the raaf not buying more c17’s when they had the chance.

  • Steve

    says:

    But note that at the time of AIR 9000 Phase 2 the then Blackhawk UH-60L did not have the power to be used in Afghanistan hot-high conditions for carrying Army sections – that ADF and US forces used Chinooks instead. It was only in recent years that the Blackhawk was fitted with T701D engines matching the power of the Taipan.

  • Gordon Mackinlay

    says:

    I sent the various articles published off to my youngest son in the UK. The UK is currently reviewing aircraft to replace the prematurely retired Puma force (rebuilt at a huge cost to provide a very good a/c). The Civil Service wish to buy a enhanced militarised/marinized version of the Leonard 169M, a superb aircraft but limited in range and tactical pax carrying. The latest variants of the Blackhawk would need to be marinized, but, they are just not suitable to carry troops with large loads, in the cabin, or when egressing/ingress. The latest builds of the NH90 are superb, and it is a true infantry carrying vehicle, all the problems that the ADF are stating do not exist. The rear ramp is a superb tool, and the aircraft is manoeuvrable as the 169M, with greater range, pax/load carrying ability, speed enhanced, and capable of operating in high conditions. So to the Army it is the solution (although they would prefer a modernised Merlin). The rejection of a in-service aircraft with a long life ahead of it, is being treated with disbelief, and the belief within Europe is that the problem is that the Army is unable to maintain at the same level of the RAAF, and a sheer lack of ability of Defence Hierarchy to solve the very solveable problems, how can everyone else have a viable battlefield tool, but, Australia does not. And the same goes with the Tiger, that has seen (and still is) very effective use in Central Africa in truly appalling conditions, without any of Australia’s problems. It stated to me that the removal of the traditional apprentice training system, producing high quality graduates for the ADF, is at fault with the Army’s RAEME maintenance system, with its engineering qualified commissioned officers unlike the RAAF inadequate for this work.

  • Shannon

    says:

    Having worked on both the choice to go back to proven airframe is a sound choice.
    The MRH90 is a nice helicopter but for combat roles it’s no good, it’s very maintenance and logistically heavy.
    The MRH90 does have some great features but when you boil it down they aren’t enough to make it better than the black hawk, and most ex black hawk maintainers I’ve talked to think the same way.
    I not a lot of people saying that it worked well over in Afghanistan and article I read about the Italian operations they only carried 6 troops in the back during summer and 7 during winter, article was read in 2013/14 and only on Logistical moves not combat, the closest it was in an overwatch role for SF snipers.
    I would also like to see the amount of spare these countries are pumping into their African operations as well.
    My thoughts on the subject.

  • Fabian

    says:

    personally i think that while this is an excellent move in the right direction, the ADF needs to strive for more quantity and quality not one over the other. Purchasing these blackhawks and ditching taipans is a good move but purchasing a small fleet of UH-1Y venoms (18-24) aircraft would be very beneficial for ship to shore movements, utility, light CAS as well as reconnaissance. being a marinized aircraft from the ground up it would greatly compensate and cooperate with the blackhawks in several operations while being extremely useful aboard the Canberra class. same goes for a small fleet of AH-1Z vipers (12-18) for reconnaissance and attack while being a fully marinized from the ground up. increasing the chinook fleet to 20 airframes increases the heavy helicopter capability for the defence force. A combined helicopter force of chinooks, apaches, blackhawks, seahawks, venoms and vipers allows for a very balanced force between army mass transportation and attack and navy marinized sea lift, support, anti submarine and surface attack capability.

  • Rod

    says:

    37 brand new Blackhawks due to be delivered to Afghan forces now sitting at undisclosed location in US about to be re-fitted for Australia, great time to be part of AUKUS!

  • Marto

    says:

    If the helicopters don’t work as advertised the commonwealth should seek damages or at least sue for breach of contract and recoup some of OUR money.

  • Gary

    says:

    Yes it was a flawed acquisition and before you all go off on a rant about why the Kiwis are going Ok and we are not, perhaps you could do some research and you will find that Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands and Germany, all operators of the NH90 are having issues. With Sweden also purchasing UH60Ms as replacements. As for an old design – that same methodology would also apply to the C130, F/A-18, etc etc. The C130J, whilst certainly the basic same design from the 50s is certainly not on the inside and as for our recently retired F/A-18 Classic Hornets whilst over 30 years old, they were certainly upgraded to the point of being the equal to any Hornet flying globally. UH60M is outwardly the same Blackhawk as the UH60A but certainly not systems wise.

    • Gordon Mackinlay

      says:

      Re Gary. The problems mentioned are very much old hat and well resolved. The Swedes did not buy the HU60 as replacements for the NH90, but, as specific role for aeromed evac, to work with US forces in AFGHAN. They doing the same today in Sweden, but, in the country’s North experiencing the same problems that the Dane’s are having with the UH60 in Greenland and the Faroes.
      The remarks by Shannon do not ring true with what is coming out from Europe, it is a superb aircraft to fly, its maintenance is totally different to the older UH-60 models, it being very similar to that of the F-35, just take out and replace units.
      Operationally in AFGHAN it operated mainly in the support role of the very good Italian special forces in very high and hot conditions, delivering six man recce/surveillance into the high mountains (complete with very large equipment loads. They were not used for standard military duties, ie. moving infantry platoons around.
      As for marksmen overwatch, this is a very common role for the aircraft, similar to the UK usage with the Wildcat.
      Its service in Africa is finding no fault with its actual aircrew and maintainers, and it exceeds the availability of the well established Super Puma variants previously used by the French there. Flying long distance missions in extreme conditions, however doing the same type of operations the US military from Africa Command and attachments from 160 SOF Regt, are experiencing problems with the sand storms and various kinds of sand material-from fine pumice type to rough grain. Reportedly (?) their intake filters are inadequate and other problems.
      No aircraft will ever be perfect, save the C-130, the latest J variants electronic systems reportedly are generations ahead of the current J’s in RAAF service. The RCAF usage of ex-RAAF Hornets is reportedly that they superior to their original models, and the standard of maintenance superior.
      Which leads back to the problems (???) of the NH90, I at the time having got my fingers slapped over the excessive use of external tanks, stated that whilst the concept of handing over to Army command and control of the CH47/UH60 tactical force was ideal (but really there no need for Army aircrew, and other nations do not need officers to pilot what is basically a flying truck). But the concept of RAEME having maintenance, and RAAOC replacement stock control was not, the RAAF should have retained all aspects of technical support/training, as they were and are superior in this field than the Army. But, then and now very little inter-service jointness in the ADF. I was reading again about the RAEME cock-up with maintenance training with the Tiger force up in Darwin some 12 years ago, when it disclosed that civilian contractor supervision was allowing tradesmen to rise to higher levels of qualifications without the actual ability.

  • Chris

    says:

    The New Zealand Government should be talking to their Australian counterparts about the purchase of 10 of your unwanted NH-90’s to join your ex Seasprite and Bell 429’s that are doing a fine job across the ditch for the RNZN and Police.
    When you have a very limited Defence budget you have to make things work as you don’t have the luxury to replace an entire fleet if you get things wrong.
    Bring on the retirement of your Hawks and they too could find a home across the ditch.

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