Dogged by reports of poor rate of effort and availability, Taipan and Tiger military helicopters have had a turbulent introduction into the ADF. But gains are being made slowly but surely.
Despite its issues, the Multi-Role Helicopter (MRH) Taipan achieved a key milestone with the final aircraft introduced into service on November 1 last year.
Meanwhile, the entire Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) Tiger fleet was grounded on August 14, 2017 pending the outcomes from investigations into the German aircraft crash in Mali, earlier that year. ARH Tiger flying operations recommenced on November 10, after detailed consideration of the factors that caused the suspension, a Defence spokesperson said to ADM.
“The Army and Airbus have developed a rigorous program of work, involving inspections, checks and test flying to support a full resumption to normal flight operations,” the spokesperson added.
Commander of the 16th Aviation Brigade, Brigadier Steve Jobson highlighted that the decision to apply a cessation on the Australian ARH Tiger fleet as a consequence of the German Army Tiger variant in Mali, was a decision taken to ensure the safety and wellbeing of ADF people.
“We retain full confidence in the Australian ARH Tiger into the future and have recommended flying operations today with sensible measures to protect against any of the possible factors that may have contributed to the German Army's loss,” he stated.
The Government has directed that a Capability Assurance Program (CAP) be conducted on the ARH Tiger to assure the capability until it is replaced from 2025. Defence is currently considering the details of this program and will present it to the Government for consideration before the end of 2017.
This has shadowed any improved sustainment and maintenance, which was turning its performance around, and aiming to bridge the gap between expectation and reality. Multiple sources have reported the helicopter to be an under-performing acquisition, questions have been raised over future capabilities and availability challenges.
Concerns in the past have included, fumes in the cockpit, a rocket launcher pod falling-off the aircraft and communications systems compatibility issues.
Despite its issues, the 2016 Defence White Paper states that the ARH Tigers will remain in service. The aircraft is also due for a mid-life update, which is expected to come in at a significant cost.
It’s not just the helicopter which has met with criticism. The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) was reproachful of the figures and data provided for the Defence Management of Material Sustainment 2017-18 report.
Questioning sustainment reporting practices used by the ADF and calling for improved transparency and accountability, the sustainment of the ARH Tiger and the MRH90 Taipan fell into the report spotlight.
The ANAO report highlighted differences in the information provided about the ARH Tiger in the April-June 2016 Quarterly Performance Report produced during the audit, in contrast to the ANAO Audit Report 2016-17, the ANAO Major Projects Report 2015-16, a sustainment gate review and the Houston Review into Army Aviation November 2016.
“A comparison shows that the Quarterly Performance Report does not include information available to Defence that is critical to the reader’s ability to understand the gap between the expectation of capability and reality for the Tiger helicopter program,” the report stated.
In the Quarterly Report supplied to the ANAO, Defence did not identify the ARH Tiger as an under-performing acquisition or sustainment project, despite statements made in other sources.
‘While it is fair to say that there are substantial differences between the ANAO Performance Audit and Defence’s Quarterly Performance Report and the Major Project Report, it is important to understand the data sources and look holistically at the current state of Tiger,” Head of Helicopter Systems Major General Andrew Mathewson, said as he addressed these criticisms.
“The ANAO report on Tiger did not present some of the positive improvements in Tiger and in one area, it misinterpreted the available data. This has contributed to a negative portrayal of what is generally a good news story.”
“No-one can deny that Tiger has been a difficult Project,” MAJGEN Mathewson said, “with the capability delivered seven years late.”
“This history is important and many lessons can be learnt from the approach taken by Defence and Industry to get the project back on track. The contemporary perspective on Tiger is far more positive however, and many commentators, including the ANAO, have overlooked the substantial progress made. Importantly, Tiger achieved Final Operational Capability in April 2016,” he explained to ADM.
The ANAO reported on 76 deficiencies for the Tiger in the performance audit. “These 76 ‘deficiencies’ are in fact a list of 76 potential future upgrades planned for the Tiger Capability Assurance Project,” he said.
“An upgrade is not a deficiency. Similar capability upgrade lists are developed for all in-service products. Upgrades keep the product abreast of technological developments and ensure Australia maintains its capability edge. Upgrades do not address deficiencies, they are simply the way that Defence recognises that as technology dates, it needs to keep acquiring the latest available technology for its in-service products.”
Two recommendations were made by the ANAO, with Defence noting the findings in the report, and agreeing to both recommendations – namely to institute a risk-based quality assurance process for information included in the Quarterly Performance Report, and to develop and implement an evaluation plan to assess the application of the recommendations of the First Principles Review.
But despite a turbulent introduction into the ADF, the performance and sustainment of the ARH Tiger and the MRH 90 Taipan have both been improving this year, according to Airbus Australia Pacific managing director Tony Fraser.
A key milestone was achieved in May last year, when the first of the two aircraft delivered to the Australian Army in 2004, the ARH Tiger serial #001 had flown 2,000 hours. It was also the first Tiger in the global fleet hit this target.
“I mentioned that it has been a tough start, and that is because the aircraft were not as technically advanced and matured as to what the expectation was here [in Australia], and we have acknowledged that,” he said.
“Once you get a difficult reputation it is quite hard to turn around and all we are asking is for a fair assessment on current performance, and one of the push backs on the ANAO report is that we do not believe it should be comparing future capabilities against the capabilities it [ARH Tiger] was bought for,” he explained.
“The ARH Tiger helicopter introduced a step change in the warfighting capabilities of the Army,” Director General Army Aviation Brigadier Scott Benbow commented on the progress made by Tiger. “The program saw the retirement of a simple analogue era helicopter with no weapon systems – perhaps akin to a 1970 Holden Kingswood – and its replacement by a digital attack reconnaissance helicopter with the ability to sense and destroy targets at 4,000 metres, with the complexity of a modern F1 racing car.”
BRIG Benbow highlighted that the transition was not simple.
“The Tiger proved to be more developmental than was promised by the manufacturer, meaning early versions were actually flying prototypes, however, the helicopter has matured considerably since that time,” he said. “The Tiger now forms an integral part of the Army combined arms team. It provides highly sophisticated sighting systems, long range fires and an unequalled mobility on a modern battlefield.”
BRIG Benbow’s comments are reinforced by BRIG Jobson.
“In the first six months of 2017, the ARH Tiger capability at the 1st Aviation Regiment enjoyed its most successful period in service with the Australian Army,” BRIG Jobson said. “Through this period, we were able to see what a mature ARH capability looks like.”
The 1st Aviation Regiment achieved significant Joint Force Modernisation outcomes across the 2016/2017 financial year, according to BRIG Jobson.
“This includes the clearance of precision Laser Guided Rockets; Manned-Unmanned Teaming with Army's Shadow Unmanned Aerial Vehicles; Wet Wing Combat Refuelling with the Royal Australian Air Force's C-130J aircraft; and initial First of Class Flight Trials on the RAN’s Canberra class Landing Helicopter Dock,” he explained. “These represent historic advances in combat capability for the ADF.”
Tiger and the ANAO
Last year, an ANAO report on the ARH Tiger highlighted that the aircraft availability was low, with sustainment costs exceeding the original contract value of $571 million to $921 million in June 2016.
“They [the ANAO] were quite accurate in the poor rate of effort, and availability in its early days,” Fraser acknowledged. “We have put resources and programs and managed that, and we have seen the results in availability.”
Prior to the recent grounding of the Tiger fleet, the availability in the School of Army Aviation at Oakey for ARH Tiger this year, according to Fraser, has consistently been above 75 per cent, 90 per cent, and 100 per cent for a week at a time.
“When you pull up the report on the cost of flight hours, the cost of the platforms and others, yes, it is high, and we are working that down, and we brought it down by 30 per cent in Tigers,” he said. “It is back up a little bit depending on rate of effort per flight hour.”
The cost per flight hour for the ARH Tiger averages about $26,000, and covers training, engineering support and others elements of maintenance, which have been amalgamated.
The company built a nose cone around the fuel cell, which gives it an extra hour, so that it can stay on station with the soldiers and still fire all its weapons.
“There is no question that Tiger cost of ownership has exceeded the original contract value, but it is important to recognise that the original contract was not capable of delivering support to a complex weapon system like Tiger,” MAJGEN Mathewson said.
The contract was re-negotiated in 2008 to deliver the required scope of work with a substantial increase in cost to Defence.
“Tiger’s current cost of ownership is now comparable with other complex aviation systems in Defence when the broad scope of work out-sourced to industry is considered against the expenditure made,” MAJGEN Mathewson explained. “In the case of Tiger, almost all support activities have been out-sourced including maintenance, engineering, logistics, training and support systems and software support.”
BRIG Jobson is confident in the ARH Tiger and believes the aircraft’s future is bright.
“We have seen historic levels of performance and reliability that place us squarely on par with peer global operators of this category of helicopter,” he said. “We will soon operate our ARH Tigers from the LHDs in close support of the Joint Force.”
According to BRIG Jobson, paired with MRH-90 fleet, the combined group of helicopters would offer their proven performance, world-class reliability and modernised combat systems in a Joint Advanced Amphibious Rotary Wing combat capability, which has never been achieved in the ADF history.
In other efforts to sustain the fleet, the Taipan and Tiger Management Unit (TTMU) was established, earlier this year. The unit consists of both Defence and industry teams who have been working on resolving sustainment issues, particularly the newer aircraft issues of the MRH 90 Taipan to bring them back into service.
“The 5th Aviation Regiment in Townsville, under the commanding officer this year is producing great results,” Fraser said. “We had availability challenges there [Townsville], so what we did is put additional resources at the company expense.”
Airbus Group Australia Pacific placed 35 additional maintenance personnel, which took the total to 41 personnel in Townsville, in June this year and experienced immediate results.
“We fixed and improved the supply chain, and improved turnaround times on the repairable items,” Fraser said. Engineering has been reducing the maintenance burden, and we will keep working on that to bring it down, but it is much, much better than where it has been.”
The 5th Aviation Regiment recently posted flight hours for an MRH 90 Taipan, with 949 aircraft hours against 1,189 mission hours in June/July last year.
“The way in which the hours are calculated on the Tiger and Taipan is different to the other aircraft,” Fraser explained. “We only measure when the aircraft is actually airborne. In this particular case when you do the sums there is about a 20 per cent difference. So, what you need is that 20 per cent increase, or 20 per cent less cost per flight hour [and] less maintenance per flight hour if we were to measure in a like for like sense.”
Defence conducts reviews of sustainment performance through its gate review process, which assist in obtaining insights into a project or product’s progress and status. A key risk to the MRH 90 Taipan, following a review in 2016, was sustainment cost, according to the ANAO Management of Material Sustainment 2017-18 report, which Defence confirmed in March this year.
“We have thrown a lot of resources to improve the MRH 90 Taipan,” Fraser concluded to ADM. “Our view is that it is the right machine and those who fly it, love it. It performs very well.”
ADM understands that the Taipan will enter service for the Special Forces in the early 2020s timeframe, replacing the ageing Blackhawk. Both Defence and Airbus are throwing significant resources into the program to make the platform suitable for the role, according to the needs of the demanding special forces teams.
This article first appeared in the December/January 2018 edition of ADM.