As I’m sure you well know, the much-anticipated independent review into the Navy’s surface combatant fleet has emerged from the shadows of government.

ADM Senior Correspondent Julian Kerr has analysed the report and his report can be read on page 18. While I don’t wish to pre-empt the article, it suffices to say that two of the shipbuilding programs currently underway will be significantly reduced in scale.

The report was conveniently but coincidentally released on the eve of ADM’s Congress on 21 February. In his opening address to the event, Publisher Ewen Levick noted that when he joined ADM in March 2018, the continuous naval shipbuilding program was set in stone.

Just two months later, BAE Systems, Luerssen and Naval Group had won contracts worth billions of dollars to build ASW frigates, OPVs and conventionally-powered submarines.

Just six years later these three shipbuilders have had their programs either slashed or cancelled altogether.

As Ewen pointed out, each review undertaken contradicts the findings of the previous report and it would seem the biggest risk to industry is to win a contract which is then subject to another review.

While the surface ship review is undoubtedly big news, I would like to turn to an issue which Defence was hoping to bury from sight – figuratively and literally – and that is the disposal of the MRH 90 Taipans.Defence Minister Richard Marles announced the Taipan would not return to service following a fatal crash last year.

The fact that he made the announcement only weeks after the accident and before an official investigation had been completed – it still hasn’t been completed – is puzzling.

What advice had he received prior to making that call and who (if anyone) provided that advice is still unknown.

In the meantime, NHI as the OEM was able to analyse data from the helicopter involved and concluded that it was operating normally right up to the crash.

This was confirmed during the Defence Senate Estimates inquiry on 14 February by Chief of Army LTGEN Simon Stuart.

In the Estimates hearing Senator Doug Fawcett, a former military test pilot and someone with a great deal of credibility in such matters, tried to get to the bottom of who actually provided Marles with the information he needed to ground the Taipans permanently.

Of course, the Defence organisation circled the wagons and Senator Fawcett did not receive a clear answer.

Then there’s the issue of their disposal. At the Indo-Pacific show last November, ADM first heard the airframes were being stripped of parts and the hulks would be buried in landfill – a story so unbelievable it wasn’t at the time taken seriously.

Sadly, it was true and that is exactly what’s occurring.

Why this process was begun so quickly after their grounding and continues to progress so rapidly hasn’t been adequately explained. After all, there are still dozens of former RAAF Hornets sitting in a hangar at Williamtown two years after they were retired. And it’s a similar story with Army’s earlier Black Hawks, which of course Taipan was to replace.

Why is Defence in such a hurry to dispose of the Taipans and why did it attempt to do so by stealth?

Last October Ukrainian authorities approached the government to see if a number of them could be provided to help repel the Russian invaders. Defence said it received a formal request in December, and in January (four months after the first approach) it provided advice to government that the disposal process was irreversible.

This of course begs the question: why did disposal of the Taipans continue with such haste and secrecy after the initial request?

ADM would welcome a briefing from Defence or the Minister to set the record straight.

This article first appeared in the February/March 2024 edition of Australian Defence Magazine.

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