Defence Minister Richard Marles has said the federal government is yet to determine the future of Australia’s troubled MH-90 Taipan fleet.
However, Deputy PM Marles has now said the Taipan program remains “under review”.
“Well, the review of the Taipans is continuing. No decision has been made in relation to that,” he said.
“But we have made clear that we are reviewing that capability, and we’re looking at other options that could fulfill that capability, particularly Black Hawks, in the future.”
This comes amid reports French President Emmanuel Macron plans to lobby the Albanese government to retain the fleet, which if replaced, would cease operation 10 years ahead of the initial decommissioning timeline.
Minister Marles said the government has been transparent with President Macron and French Minister for Defence Sébastien Lecornu regarding concerns over the Taipan fleet and would raise the issue during the president’s scheduled visit in November.
“I would completely expect the French President to advocate on behalf of French defence industry, that’s perfectly appropriate,” he said.
“…We will be very honest and very open with France, that’s really how we’re seeking to do a reset with France, and that was one of the commitments that Anthony Albanese made when he visited France was to make sure that we have a very straight, open and honest relationship because France matters.”
The Deputy PM added that ultimately, the decision would need to reflect Australia’s national interest.
But according to shadow minister for defence Andrew Hastie, the decision is clear.
“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 issues with the platform…,” shadow minister Hastie said.
He noted only 46 per cent of MRH-90 aircraft allocated to flying units were available to fly in 2021, describing the inactivity as “unacceptable” and a “major risk” to Australian warfighters.
“I understand Defence has communicated its concerns about the MRH-90 consistently since 2011 — why isn’t Mr Marles listening to his own department and senior ADF leadership?” he added.
The shadow minister went on to urge the Albanese government to press ahead with the proposed acquisition of Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters, lauding the platform’s capability.
“By contrast, the UH-60 Black Hawk is the most widely used utility helicopter variant in the world. It has been tested in some of the toughest battlefields over the last two decades,” he said.
Taipan’s troubled operational history
The MH-90 Taipan helicopters have failed to meet contracted availability requirements over the past several years in light of a series of technical shortcomings.
In June 2021, 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.
This was the latest of several technical incidents associated with the Taipan’s operation.
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 temporarily suspend the entire fleet.
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.