Despite anecdotal reports Army's Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) is a potent battlefield capability which has earned the respect of both its crew and the land force it supports, it would seem-someone senior in Defence or Government, or perhaps both, wants to kill the program.
There is no doubt that the Tiger has had a troubled past in ADF service, the helicopter really was still in the developmental phase when it first entered service in December 2004 and it has taken a long time to mature and achieve the required rate of effort.
While this rate of effort has still not reached the desired level, significant improvements have been made, with a lot of hard work from Airbus Helicopters and its subcontractors, in partnership with Army and the Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG).
New weapons have recently been fielded and anecdotal reports are that Army is very happy with the capability at the user level, when it works.
But we say anecdotally, because it would seem that someone in Defence or Government, or both, is actively suppressing any good news stories regarding Tiger. ADM’s request to speak with subject matter experts from Army and CASG for the preparation of this article was denied by Defence in lieu of the promise of written answers to prepared questions.
While a comprehensive list of questions were provided – with a request for a detailed response to each – the eventual response was received not only too late for the June issue of ADM, but comprised of a scant few sentences (145 words in total) which provided very little information. Further requests to both Defence and Government have elicited no response to date.
Tiger was singled out in the 2016 Defence White Paper for criticism, the only platform to be treated in this manner, and it was also the subject of an Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report in September 2016, which many in Defence and industry considered was effectively a hatchet job. It listed no fewer than 76 ‘deficiencies’ which, according to informed sources, were actually capabilities not specified in the original ARH requirements, but which have become upgrade opportunities along the way.
The White Paper effectively cancelled a planned Capability Assurance Program (ARHCAP) in lieu of a limited series of upgrades which do address some capability deficiencies, but are largely obsolescence management activities. In its place, the White Paper called for an ARH replacement program (Land 4503) beginning in 2025, which again took many in Defence and industry by surprise, especially considering the amount of effort expended on remediation to that point.
Given the deliberate lack of transparency at the present time it is difficult to predict with any certainty what Tiger’s future may be, other than the subject of the replacement program in the middle of the next decade.
In the 2017-18 Defence Portfolio Budget Statement for example, the ARHCAP (part of Project Land 9000) was listed as a project in development for Second Pass approval consideration within the financial year. If this has actually occurred as predicted it has not been announced by either Defence or Government and the ongoing opacity of both organisations makes it problematic when seeking answers.
What we do know
According to the written response provided by Defence to ADM in May, it has received unsolicited responses from industry to replace Tiger, but it says it has not yet selected a platform or system.
“Defence will undertake a planned replacement of the current Tiger fleet in the mid-2020s, costing between $5 billion and $6 billion,” according to the Defence statement. “Defence routinely receives unsolicited proposals from various manufacturers and wider industry, and this is no different for Project Land 4503. Defence has not selected a platform or a system at this stage, though it is likely to consider manned and unmanned systems, or a combination of both.”
There was no mention of Land 9000 ARHCAP at all in the response and it was also not listed in the 2018-19 PBS, but the timing for the Tiger replacement program itself is also somewhat problematic. As ADM has written in the past, the only western attack helicopters which may be available in the middle of the next decade will be the Airbus Helicopters Tiger (in upgraded Mk.III form), the Bell AH-1Z Viper and the Boeing AH-64E Apache.
We say ‘may be’ available because it is possible that not all of the three will actually still be in production when Land 4503 needs to deliver helicopters to meet the government’s timetable.
Continued production of some will be dependent upon future export orders once their respective programs of record are completed and at this point in time, Tiger Mk.III is very much a paper aircraft and still in the definition stage of its program.
The US has its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program on the distant horizon, which is aimed at replacing the current fleets of transport and attack helicopters with the next generation of platforms.
However, even if this ambitious and complex program progresses through future US Defence budgets unhindered and on schedule, it will not start delivering aircraft to the US military until at least the early 2030s – almost a decade late for Australia’s Tiger replacement program.
“Land 4503 will likely occur before the next generation of battlefield vertical take-off and landing systems, commonly referred to as Future Vertical Lift, has sufficiently matured,” Defence said in the written response. “However Defence continues to observe the development of the US Army’s FVL program.”
So, with FVL looking like a replacement for Tiger’s replacement at best, what of the three likely contenders for Land 4503?
Airbus Helicopters Tiger Mk.III
Airbus Helicopters will cease production of what it calls the Tiger Mk.1 (which includes Australia’s ARH) at the end of 2018, once deliveries to the French, German and Spanish Armies are completed, however it still has an active sales campaign and it says that international interest in Tiger continues.
In the meantime, the company is working on the Tiger Mk.2, which is an upgrade of 24 French Army Tiger HAD (Hélicoptère d'Appui Destruction, similar to Army’s ARH), including laser guided rockets and new GPS receiver and antenna and it will be delivered from mid 2020.
The Mk.3 concept is in essence a mid-life upgrade of the Tiger weapons system, due to enter service in the next decade and which Airbus Helicopters says will leverage recent combat experience in Afghanistan and Mali. The company has been awarded a Mk.3 Architecture Study by Europe’s OCCAr (Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation), on behalf of the French, German and Spanish armed forces.
“The Australian Army has an impressive, highly capable, ARH Tiger capability. Some examples of this professional level of capability can be seen on the 1st Aviation Regiment Facebook pages,” an Airbus Helicopters spokesperson said. “ARH replacement requirements are not yet defined, however Airbus continues to improve and enhance the Tiger through the existing Through Life Support (TLS) with the Commonwealth. There will be opportunities to leverage both Mk.2 and Mk.3 developments to ensure that the ARH Tiger meets the anticipated Australian requirements well into the 2030s.”
Airbus said that, as an active member of the Tiger user community, it expects engagement to continue regarding enhancements to meet specific Australian requirements, but Defence’s written response seems to have a bet each way.
“Australia currently operates a variant of the European Tiger, modified in some respects for Australian-specific environmental conditions. As such, Australia is a close observer of all European Tiger development programs,” the statement said, but then added. “Australia is not an active participant in the future Tiger program.”
Bell AH-1Z Viper
Bell’s AH-1Z is the US Marine Corps’ latest generation of attack helicopter and is replacing the earlier AH-1W variant in front line service.
As of early June, almost 100 of the 189 aircraft on order for the USMC had been delivered and it has also been exported to Pakistan. In April, the US Government also announced the possible sale of 12 helicopters to Bahrain.
John Woodbery, Bell’s military business director for the Asia-Pacific region points to the Viper’s marinisation as a key discriminator for any country wishing to build an amphibious capability, with the helicopter routinely deployed for months at sea aboard US Navy LHDs.
“When we come to the table we have a built for purpose aircraft, designed from scratch to be operated from a ship in a salt water environment,” he said to ADM. “Any helicopter can land on a ship, but when you go on long deployments in a salt water environment, if you design an aircraft from scratch for that environment it’s a big bonus, it reduces the cost of ownership and it ensures a good rate of reliability.”
Bell has teamed with BAE Systems Australia for its Land 4503 activities, but Woodbery says he doesn’t see any movement from the timeline laid out by the 2016 White Paper.
“We’re looking at what’s written in the White Paper and where the ADF and Army are going with their plans to be an amphibious-capable force,” he added. “We’re marrying those statements up with the AH-1Z’s capabilities, what it is designed to do and who it’s currently employed by – and the two mesh together quite nicely.”
Boeing AH-64E Apache
The Apache is well known throughout the world as the US Army’s attack helicopter capability and variants are also operated by many other countries. The latest version, the AH-64E was displayed at the 2017 Avalon Airshow and Jeff Shelton, vice president of Global Sales and Marketing for Boeing Defence Space and Security says the company has provided Army with information on the helicopter in the Land 4503 context, and is ready to offer it in accordance with the White Paper timeline.
“The AH-64E offers the Australian Army the interoperability to integrate land, joint and coalition tactical networks,” he said. “The Apache is currently being produced for the US Army and international customers, with an active production line until 2026.
“The US Army will continue to upgrade its helicopters through a modernisation program to keep the fleet ready and relevant to the mid century and beyond.”
Shelton says the US Army has stated that the Apache will be in service until at least 2060 and the global fleet consists of around 1,100 helicopters.
“Combined with Boeing Defence Australia’s proven platform sustainment solutions, Apache is capable of meeting the Australian Army’s future reconnaissance and attack aviation requirements for decades to come,” he said.
This article first appeared in the July 2018 edition of ADM.