The federal Liberal opposition has urged the Albanese government to finalise the purchase of Black Hawk helicopters for the Australian Army amid fears it could be dropped.
It comes after Defence Minister Richard Marles on Friday cast doubt on the deal, arguing the “fuzzy commitment” made by his predecessor Peter Dutton would be subject to a review process.
Those remarks have now been criticised by the federal opposition, which has called on the Albanese government to proceed with the acquisition.
Shadow assistant minister for defence Phillip Thompson said he is concerned the recently launched Defence Strategic Review would be used as an “excuse” to stall the acquisition.
“We said the Defence Strategic Review must not result in cuts. This looks like exactly that,” he said.
The shadow minister claimed a decision to replace the Taipan fleet was “overdue”, given the fleet’s underperformance in recent years.
The Taipan fleet has failed to meet contracted availability requirements in light of a series of technical shortcomings.
The Australian National Audit Office 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 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.
“Our soldiers need a reliable tactical troop transport helicopter now, that can be used for training, humanitarian missions as well as on combat operations. That helicopter is the Black Hawk,” shadow minister Thompson added.
He went on to laud the capability of the Black Hawk platform.
“I was casualty-evacuated from Afghanistan in a Black Hawk myself. It’s a proven and reliable capability. The decision has been backed by soldiers and officers alike since its announcement,” he said.
“…There’s no excuse to hide cuts to capability and delayed decision making behind a review. There’s no question the Black Hawk is needed for our national security.”
But Deputy Prime Minister Marles has sought to allay fears the review would derail the overall push to upgrade the ADF’s warfighting capability.
“What we’ve said with the Defence Strategic Review is that it is not about all the operations of the Defence Force being put on hold until the review is complete,” he said.
“…We are continuing to evolve our capabilities and that means that those immediate questions are still being worked through and considered and this is one of those processes which is underway, and the Black Hawks form a part of that.”