Defence Minister Richard Marles has said Australia might not replace its beleaguered Taipan fleet with Black Hawks as expected.
In an interview with The Australia, Marles stated his predecessor Peter Dutton’s announcement last year that the Army would buy 40 was a “pretty fuzzy commitment”.
“A process is underway that is evaluating that capability in terms of what we have now and what we need in the future. I’m not going to pre-empt it now,” he said, referencing the new federal government’s upcoming Defence Strategic Review.
Last year, the former Morrison government went as far as to send a letter of request to the United States so Australia could purchase UH-60M Black Hawks for AU$2.79 billion.
They were expected to replace Australia’s fleet of 47 Airbus-built MRH-90 Taipans, currently in service as Army’s utility aircraft.
It came amid ongoing concerns over Taipan’s performance, with the platform failing to meet contracted availability requirements in light of a series of technical shortcomings.
In 2019, for instance, a tail rotor vibration forced the MRH-90s based at HMAS Albatross to be grounded, while in 2021, the entire fleet was stopped from flying after an issue relating to the aircraft’s IT support system was identified.
Today, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) continues to list the MRH program (AIR 9000 Phase 2, 4 and 6) as a “project of concern”.
The program has also exceeded operational cost expectations ahead of its original planned withdrawal from service in 2037. Initially, an annual sustainment cost of approximately $123 million (2021 AUD out-turned) was anticipated. However, this has now more than doubled to approximately $300 million.
Costs are also expected to increase with scheduled upgrade programs for the global fleet to address operational and obsolescence issues.
This would have taken the total cost of operating the fleet until 2037 to $9.5 billion when including a mid-life upgrade.
In the same interview on Friday, Defence Minister Marles also hinted that Australia could purchase the in-development B-21 Raider.
It comes days after US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall surprisingly said his country would be “willing to talk about anything that there was an interest in from the Australian perspective that we could help them with”.
The B-21 is the ‘sequel’ to the UFO-like B-2 Spirit, which can carry nuclear weapons and costs $2 billion each.
Introduced in the late Eighties, the batwing bomber is seen as the US’ most prestigious and prized aircraft, with only 20 in active service.
Last month, five of the originals arrived at Base Amberley to train with RAAF F-35s, in what was certainly its biggest ever deployment to the region.