They’re not new, they’re not sexy and they’re anything but adventurous. But they are available now and spare parts are abundant.
That seems to be the takeaway from two critical military procurement decisions surrounding rotary-winged aircraft (helicopters) given the green light by defence minister Richard Marles, as speculation intensifies over how the Defence Strategic Review, due in March, is shaping up.
Over the space of the past few days, Marles, with the guidance of his department and senior officers, has inked deals to replace the expensive and arguably boutique MRH-90 Taipan utility helicopters with 40 UH-60M Black Hawks, and a maintenance and support contract extension for the existing fleet of 14 CH-47F Chinook helicopters.
Both announcements were well anticipated and telegraphed to industry and allies alike, but they speak volumes about how Defence is again leaning towards hard-nosed pragmatism over bleeding edge and highly customised projects in response to the current strategic environment.
Nuclear submarines and stealth fighters and bombers might capture the headlines when it comes to cutting-edge technology, but in the cold, hard and increasingly wet reality of operational resilience, it’s rugged, reliable and reusable choppers that put boots and equipment on the ground where they are needed.
As Australia again seeks to increase its presence in the Pacific and its surrounds, those needs mean more missions to provide humanitarian and disaster relief aid, logistics support and the ability to get people and supplies in and out of areas like those cut off from land and fixed-wing aircraft access.
The Army’s Chinooks have been the backbone of heavy lift capability since they were first put into service in 1974, meaning they will chalk up 50 years of Australian active service next year. They’re still the go-to platform for major operations like flood relief, as exemplified again this summer.
Like the Royal Australian Air Force’s continuously updated fleet of Hercules transport aircraft, no platform as reliable or useful has come close to the challenging designs that have endured over several decades.
These days, the Chinooks fly under the Boeing badge, the manufacturer scoring a $41 million contract extension for the continued support of the Chinook fleet of 14 aircraft over the next five years, taking the current contract value to $146 million, according to Defence.
What the department isn’t shouting out is that compared to the $3.7 billion MRH-90 Taipan project, the ‘big birds’ are comparatively cheap to operate and maintain — one of the reasons Black Hawks are being slotted in to replace Taipans before their original lifespan is up.
“The CH-47F Chinook fleet is an important capability for Defence, providing critical lift capability on several domestic and regional operations, including Bushfire Assist in 2020, and Tonga and Flood Assist in 2022,” first assistant secretary, Joint Aviation System Division, Shane Fairweather said.
“This contract extension will expand the maintenance and training support for our Chinook fleet while boosting opportunities for defence industry in Queensland.”
The Black Hawks are around a decade younger in design vintage, but still very much holding their own since Sikorsky Aircraft brought them to market in the mid-1970s as a replacement for the Bell UH-1 Iroquois that was also a mainstay for Australia’s military, with variants still in operation here in commercial and search and rescue roles.
Aside from their highly-regarded performance, what makes the acquisition of 40 UH-60Ms an easy decision is that they are available now and come with an established local skills base.
Head Land Capability Major General Jeremy King CSM said this was an important acquisition that will meet the strategic needs of the Australian Army.
“The Black Hawk capability will be a crucial element for us to protect Australia’s sovereignty, and deliver foreign policy objectives, including providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” King said.
“The Black Hawk will support the deployment of our troops and their equipment where they are needed in times of crisis. The Black Hawk is a reliable, proven and mature platform supported by a robust global supply chain.”
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Marcus Hellyer has estimated the MRH-90 has cost between $35,000 and $50,000 per hour to operate, a figure that crystalises running costs to the equivalent of an Alfa Romeo competing against a Camry.
The Black Hawks will fly out of Oakey, Queensland, and Holsworthy, NSW, while the Chinooks will continue to be operated by Army’s C Squadron, 5th Aviation Regiment out of Townsville.
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Julian Bajkowski is a senior reporter for The Mandarin, and is based in Sydney
Tags: 5th Aviation Regiment Airbus Australian Army Bell UH-1 Iroquois Black Hawk Boeing C Squadron C-130 Hercules CH-47F CH-47F Chinook Chinook Defence minister Defence Strategic Review Eurocopter Lockheed Martin MRH-90 MRH-90 Taipan Richard Marles Sikorsky Taipan UH-60M UH-60M Black Hawk Vertol
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