The Australian federal government has doubled down on disposal of the MRH90 Taipan helicopter fleet, despite voluntary offers to repair and provide the helicopters to Ukraine.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Richard Marles, speaking in an ABC television interview on February 7, reaffirmed the government’s decision to scrap the Australian Defence Force transport helicopters ahead of their planned withdrawal date and dispose of them domestically.
The ADF MRH-90 Taipan helicopter fleet was originally grounded late last year following a series of aircraft accidents. An MRH-90 helicopter crashed south of Hamilton Island while participating in Exercise Talisman Sabre in July 2023, while another aircraft ditched into NSW waters during a routine counterterrorism training exercise in March 2023. Flying operations were suspended in June 2021 and a tail rotor vibration problem was identified in HMAS Albatross in 2019.
A global search was undertaken by MRH-90 Taipan contractor NATO Helicopter Industries to find potential buyers and a December 2023 request from Ukraine for the aircraft was unsuccessful.
The decision to retire the Taipan fleet was made based on reliability, however, efforts are now being made to have 12 new ADF Blackhawk helicopters moved up and operating by the end of the year, according to Marles.
“When we made the decision to permanently ground the Taipans, obviously that created a challenge in respect of capability. We had always, and had made this decision some time ago, planned to transition from Taipans to Blackhawks, with Blackhawks being the only capability from the end of this year,” he said.
“(We sought to) realise the greatest amount of value for the Australian taxpayer out of what we had there, and we approached defence forces around the world who were operating Taipans, what became clear is that the value in those frames lay in the spare parts that they could generate.
“Those frames have been since then stripped of those parts in order to maximise the value. That process was well underway before we had the request from Ukraine or the European Union.
“We need to be making sure that what we are providing to Ukraine is useful and is practical. And that’s been at the heart of all of the decisions that we’ve been making in relation to support for Ukraine.
“We are very committed to… supporting Ukraine, and we continue to be committed to supporting Ukraine, and you’ll see more from us in relation to that.
“(When) you draw a line through the commitments that we’ve made, and it is being able to provide capabilities which are sustainable in the context of the fight that Ukraine is in, and our Taipans are not that.
“That is why we’ve made the decision in respect to Taipans. We will continue to support Ukraine in the conflict apparent that they’re engaging in.”
The response follows a plan proposed by former Australian Defence Force personnel to repair the aircraft, transport them to the Middle East via Royal Australian Air Force C-17 Globemaster aircraft and donate them to Ukraine.
“Former ADF personnel would love to, most likely enjoy, spending time working on aircraft that would benefit another country against Russia,” said former Australian soldier Chris Moore, speaking to the ABC.
“They could get out there and spin a few spanners, push them along or even assist other contractors to help preserve these aircraft to be used other than being buried in the ground.
“With a combined effort from the Australian community we could collectively save these valuable airframes for a country in desperate need of military hardware to strengthen and reinforce their capability.”
Charles Darwin University Australian intelligence and defence expert Dr Victor Abramowicz said the plan for technicians to reassemble Taipan helicopters for free could be a win-win for Ukraine and Australia.
“(Following the fleet grounding) the government looked for buyers but couldn’t find any, and so started to disassemble the helicopters,” Dr Abramowicz said.
“The request from Ukraine was received after the disassembly process had started. It would be expensive to put them back together, but now there’s been an offer by Australian technicians to do this work for free.”
“There’s a request there from Kyiv, and now an offer from technicians to do the work for free. This would seem to be a win-win.
“While there might be legal issues involved in terms of if the helicopters have any issues with them (safety, or maintainability), whether Australia might be held liable.
“With that said, considering Ukraine’s difficult situation, I’d think it very unlikely that Kyiv would refuse the helicopters or take Australia to task if there were issues with them – they understand the history of these helicopters, and even a poorly performing one is better than none at all.
“Ukraine needs anything it can get, but most particularly ammunition for its heavy artillery. This is something Australia and France are cooperating on.”
“Aside from that, armoured vehicles, fighter aircraft, drones, medical equipment … anything and everything.”
“In terms of what the Taipans would be used for, troop transport, including medical evacuation, would be the most likely, since that’s what they’re designed to do.”
In addition, the federal government recently announced Australia will need to lease five H135 ‘Juno’ training helicopters from the United Kingdom for five years to support essential training requirements for Army aircrew in the looming capability gap.
“The capability gap is felt most acutely in terms of this sort of (transport) helicopter. So Taipan going to Blackhawk, it’s that type of helicopter, which is the issue,” Marles said while speaking to an ABC television interview on 7 February.
“We’ve already had this experience over the course of the summer, and what we’ve been doing is deploying Chinooks to deal with the floods that have happened.
“Using Chinooks in a broader range of activities is in part how we are dealing with the capability gap.
“We’re also obviously trying to speed up the acquisition of the Blackhawks. We’re not shying away from the fact though that this capability gap is a challenge.
“Using Chinooks in a greater range of circumstances, getting these Blackhawks earlier, making sure the pilots are trained that’s how we’re dealing with it.”
The Taipan helicopter fleet will be replaced by the accelerated introduction into service of 40 UH‑60M Black Hawk helicopters acquired under the LAND 4507 Phase 1 Multi-Role Helicopter Rapid Replacement Project announced in January 2023.
Those aircraft will be joined by new AH-64E Apache helicopters expected to be introduced into service with the Australian Army in 2025.