• A US Army UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter. 
Credit: Lockheed Martin
    A US Army UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Defence’s announcement on Wednesday that it will acquire 40 Sikorsky UH-60M helicopters to replace Army’s unloved MRH 90 Taipans under Land 4057 Phase 1 will surprise no-one. 

The decision was flagged by the previous government last year and was the subject of US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) approval last August. 

However, there were a few surprises buried within the finer detail, including the revelation that the new helicopters will be based at Oakey and Holsworthy – no mention of Townsville, which has been home to two battlefield mobility squadrons of the 5th Aviation Regiment since the early 1990s. Currently flying the Taipan, A & B Squadrons of the 5th Aviation Regiment previously flew the Sikorsky S-70A-9 variant of the Black Hawk which was finally retired at the end of 2021. 

Far from being an oversight in the press release, Defence has confirmed to ADM that the two squadrons will move from Townsville, leaving only the CH-47F Chinooks at the northern Queensland base.

“The Black Hawk will operate from Oakey, Queensland and Holsworthy, NSW,” a Defence spokesperson said. “Townsville will continue to be the home of the expanded CH-47F Chinook fleet. The Chinook fleet was originally envisaged to offer medium lift from Townsville through six aircraft. This has been incrementally increased to 14 aircraft.”

Until 2018 Townsville was the home of the two Taipan battlefield lift squadrons, the Chinooks of C Squadron, 5 Aviation Regiment, and No.38 Squadron of the RAAF flying the King Air 350. After this decision, only the Chinooks will remain. 

The move represents a major restructure for Army Aviation and it will be interesting to see how it will affect the 1st Aviation Regiment, currently based at Robertson Barracks in Darwin. Army has two armed reconnaissance helicopter squadrons in Darwin that currently fly the Tiger ARH, but will transition to the AH-64E Apache Guardian later this decade. Defence has previously announced that the Apaches will – initially at least – operate from Darwin, but how the restructure affects these plans is not known. 

A further surprise in yesterday’s media release is the statement that deliveries of the new Black Hawks will begin later this year. In response to ADM’s questions about why their acquisition was so urgent – being announced ahead of the Defence Strategic Review – the Defence spokesperson said: “The UH-60M Black Hawk is a proven mature platform that is interoperable with our allies, represents value for money, and best meets Australia’s capability requirements.”

Astute readers will note that the Defence response did not answer the original question but it would seem clear that Army wants to dump its Taipans as soon as possible. 

ADM also understands that the Black Hawk purchase is immune from the outcomes of the forthcoming DSR and joins other capability announcements such as additional C-130J-30s for the RAAF and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) for Army in this regard.

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