Bell and BAE Systems Australia have reaffirmed their commitment to a 2016 teaming agreement to offer the Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter for what has since become Defence’s Land 4503 (armed reconnaissance helicopter) program.
The two companies are proposing to supply 29 AH-1Zs in response to the Request For Information (RFI), released to industry on July 10. Under the teaming agreement, which was signed at the Singapore Air Show in February 2016, BAE Systems Australia will be responsible for helicopter maintenance, sustainment and training.
The agreement was initially aimed at offering the Viper as an alternative to the proposed Tiger Capability Assurance Capability (CAP) program, being planned under Land 9000 Phase 3 but, as ADM has reported before (Who is killing Tiger?), this has now been overtaken by the Land 4503 Tiger replacement program.
Speaking to ADM on September 4, Bell’s Global Military Business Manager for the Asia Pacific region, Javier Ball, said the two companies will establish a local hub – at a yet to be decided location – to support Viper in Australia and potentially the wider region.
“We’ve teamed up with BAE Systems to manage Australian Industry Content (AIC), they are our in-country sustainment, maintenance and training partner. As Foreign Military Sales (FMS) continue it makes more economic sense to centralise maintenance and support facilities in the region,” he said. “I think there’s a higher potential for other partners in the region to bring their aircraft down here.”
Ball says Bell is also looking to leverage parent Textron’s footprint in Australia, together with that of its Bell Commercial Helicopters operations, to optimise the AIC content.
At the present time, there are no Viper FMS customers in the region – Bahrain and the Czech Republic being the only two global customers, after a sale to Pakistan was blocked by the US Government – but Ball says there are discussions now underway with potential customers other than Australia, including some in the region.
The Viper also regularly deploys to the NT to support the Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D) deployments and these could potentially also provide opportunities for future Australian industry support.
In January 2019, Bell signed a US$440 million contract with the US Navy (on behalf of the Marines) to build a further 25 AH-1Zs which Ball says takes production to the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2023. The latest production lot will bring the USMC program of record to 189 units.
“The Australian RFI stated a requirement for up to 29 helicopters and that’s what our response was,” Ball said. “We can easily make the IOC (2026) and FOC (2028) deadlines (and) if Australia wants them earlier than was specified in the RFI we can deliver them.”
The AH-1Z is the subject of a spiral development program for the USMC, including a Link 16 tactical data link capability, which Ball says will ensure it remains effective throughout its lifespan.
“The Zulu (AH-1Z) meets or exceeds all the requirements in the RFI,” he says. “If Australian were to buy the helicopter, it would be compatible with all US and coalition partners, including Navy’s ships. It has already landed on your LHDs (during Talisman Sabre 2019) and there were no issues integrating them into the ships.”