• A Tiger ARH departs the flight deck of HMAS Canberra.
    A Tiger ARH departs the flight deck of HMAS Canberra. Defence

Airbus Australia Pacific has thrown its corporate hat into the ring for Defence’s Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) replacement program, to be delivered under Land 4503, with a bid to incrementally upgrade the current capability, which it says will save the taxpayer $3 billion out to 2040.

Land 4503 will require up to 29 proven, mature, off-the-shelf armed helicopters, with Initial Operational Capability (IOC) slated for the 2026 timeframe. A Request For Information (RFI) was released to industry on July 11.

Managing director Andrew Mathewson says Airbus Australia Pacific’s proposal will leverage features of the European Tiger Mk.3 upgrade program, currently under development by France, Germany and Spain under OCCAR. Mathewson said the Commonwealth can choose which features it wishes to include in the Australian Tiger upgrade program if the proposal is selected.

He says the $3 billion savings are based on the publicly available Land 4503 acquisition program figures and suggests that whichever platform is acquired, it will need to be continually upgraded if it is to remain viable until the 2040s, when Defence may be looking to the US Future Vertical Lift (FVL) solution.

“Defence has been very plain that they’re focussing on FVL, so you can imagine if they replace Tiger in the timeframe outlined (and) acquire a new capability in the early 2030s, to have it replaced in the early 2040s, I think would be a waste of taxpayer’s money,” Mathewson said.

He says the upgrade work would be performed at Airbus Australia Pacific’s facility in Brisbane, which previously assembled 18 of the 22 Tigers in service with Army Aviation and which today includes a state-of-the-art software development facility.

“We have 260 people working directly on Tiger on a whole range of things, from software development, modifications, training and maintenance and a good number of them are performing the Systems Program Office (SPO) functions that would normally be done by Defence,” Mathewson said. “So, we have an intimate knowledge of the platform and a great partnership with Defence in support of Tiger (and) we feel very confident in the ability to perform those upgrades here in Australia.”

One of the upgrades is likely to be the integration of Link 16 into the helicopter to replace the current Interim Tactical Data Link (iTDL) capability.

“We see Link 16 as a low-risk modification; the capability has been proven in a range of other aircraft types and it’s a low technical risk, low schedule risk modification that we can make to Tiger,” Mathewson added.

Tiger has suffered from poor availability and a high cost of ownership in the past – factors which have almost certainly been the catalyst for Land 4503, but Mathewson says that the helicopter is now performing well after a great deal of remediation efforts by Defence, CASG and industry and now enjoys a mission success rate above 95 per cent, together with a reduction in cost per flying hour of 30 per cent.

“Tiger today is not the same platform reflected in the 2016 White Paper (where it was singled out for criticism, above all other Projects of Concern), it is performing very well, our customer loves it and we think it matches the RFI very closely. The Commonwealth is seeking a mature, proven armed reconnaissance helicopter and that’s exactly what they have with Tiger,” Mathewson said.

“To replace an armed reconnaissance capability right now and to spend $3 billion to buy something that will offer the same capability as Tiger I think would be a terrible waste of taxpayer’s money.”  

The Airbus Australia Pacific proposal was released on August 30 and on the same day Boeing announced it will offer the AH-64E Apache against the Land 4503 requirement. Bell has previously partnered with BAE Systems Australia to bid the AV-1Z Viper and is also expected to respond to the RFI but has yet to make a public announcement.

Next week’s issue of Defence Week will take an in-depth look at the Apache helicopter and Boeing’s proposal for the Land 4503 requirement.

ADM Comment: Recent debate in the public forum has centred around which of the three helicopters is the most capable, with each having its (sometimes very vocal) supporters and detractors and, in our opinion, this completely misses the point.

We have written before that Defence would appear to actively suppress ‘good news’ stories about Tiger’s current capabilities and this has not only allowed the replacement argument a free run, but must also have a negative and regrettable impact on all those who operate the helicopter today - personnel who have pride in what they do and what they achieve on a daily basis.

The simple question asked of government, Defence and Army Aviation should be: does Tiger meet the ADF’s current requirements for an armed reconnaissance helicopter and, if so, can it be upgraded to meet future requirements out until 2040?

If the answer is yes, and the claimed savings can be verified, then we’ll leave it to the reader to decide how $3 billion of taxpayer’s money could be better spent.

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