Army’s battlefield helicopter fleet is beginning a period of significant change, with older platforms retiring and being replaced, additional helicopters added and new capabilities acquired.
Under a series of programs, the venerable Sikorsky S-70A-9 Black Hawk will finally be retired this year; the Airbus Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) will be replaced by the Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian; four more Boeing CH-47F Chinook medium lift helicopters are being delivered; and a new capability, in the form of a light Special Operations support helicopter, will be added to Army’s Order of Battle.
Only the NHI MRH 90 Taipan multi-role helicopter fleet will remain untouched, at least for the time being, but even this has been in the news in recent times following a fleet-wide grounding.
Black Hawk Retirement
The remaining Black Hawk helicopters will be retired by the end of 2021, after a career spanning 33 years and more than 200,000 flying hours. The initial deliveries of an eventual 39 helicopters were made to the RAAF in 1988, before the battlefield rotary-wing capability was transferred to Army control the following year.
“Reliable, versatile and robust, the Black Hawk has supported the Army across a range of utility, air assault, amphibious and Special Operations roles,” a Defence spokesperson said.
The few Black Hawks remaining in service operate in the Special Operations Counter-Terrorism role with Army’s 6th Aviation Regiment (6 AVN) at Holsworthy, but they are being replaced by the MRH 90 and a fitting farewell had been planned for their ultimate retirement during the now-cancelled 2021 Avalon Air Show.
“The Black Hawk has provided outstanding capability and reliability in a dedicated Special Operations Counter Terrorism role for many years, earning the confidence of Australian Special Forces,” the spokesperson added.
The MRH 90 is used by both the Army and the Royal Australian Navy, with a total of 47 aircraft (46 operational and one spare) currently in service. As ADM has previously reported, the entire fleet was subject to a formal ‘cessation of flying operations’ order on 2 June, as a result of what the Defence spokesperson called “significant uncertainty” about the effectiveness of the current maintenance policy.
“This was a considered response by Defence and was informed by the work of our industry partner Airbus Australia Pacific,” the spokesperson explained.
ADM understands the issue was the inability of Army’s CAMM2 computerised maintenance system to keep track of the hours an individual component has been in service when it is swapped from one helicopter to another. To remediate the problem, each airframe is subjected to the survey of a number of these components and then released back to service if no problems are uncovered. A formal lifting of the cessation order occurred on 6 July and ADM further understands no significant defects were found during the surveys.
“Individual MRH 90 helicopters have been progressively returning to flight status since mid-July 2021 following completion of outstanding maintenance to assure each helicopter’s safety,” the spokesperson said in late July. “Defence continues to support Exercise Talisman Sabre with other helicopters, including Army’s Tiger and Chinook. The MRH-90 will return to training support as the fleet progressively returns to flight operations.”
In Army service, the MRH 90 operates with 5 AVN at Townsville in battlefield support roles, and is transitioning to the Special Operations Counter Terrorism role with 6 AVN at Holsworthy under Plan Palisade.
Chinook fleet expansion
In April, ADM reported that the US Defense Security Co-operation Agency (DSCA) had approved the sale of four additional Boeing CH-47F Chinook medium-lift helicopters to Australia, to bring the total fleet to 14 units
The new-build aircraft were ordered by the US Army but delivered to Australia as part of a Defence requirement to address a perceived shortfall in battlefield airlift capability. This shortfall is possibly the result of the lower-than-expected rate of effort of the MRH 90 fleet, or the decision to re-role the RAAF’s C-27J tactical airlifters from battlefield airlift to Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. Or perhaps both?
The first pair of additional Chinooks arrived in Townsville aboard a US Air Force C-5M Galaxy in early July, less than three months after the US Government approved the sale, and a second pair will be delivered before the end of the current financial year. The Chinook fleet is operated by C Sqn/5 AVN at Townsville.
“The additional helicopters will strengthen Army’s airlift capability into the future and increase the ADF’s ability to support operations globally,” Defence Minister Peter Dutton said in a statement marking the first delivery.
“The Chinook is Defence’s largest helicopter, with a long and proven track record of supporting ADF operations in Australia, our near region and further afield.”
The Chinook fleet has been acquired through the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) mechanism and is supported locally by Boeing Defence Australia (BDA). In June BDA announced it will also conduct maintenance on the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) fleet of ten CH-47Fs based at Oakey, taking the total number of Chinooks under its care in Australia to 24 helicopters.
ADM understands Defence regards the maintenance of Army’s CH-47F fleet, under the auspices of the Cargo Helicopter and Unmanned Aerial Systems Program Office (CHUSPO) and supported by BDA and local industry, the “exemplar” of battlefield aviation capability stewardship.
Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter
Twenty-two Airbus Tiger ARHs were acquired by Army from 2004 and are today operated by 1 AVN at Robertson Barracks in Darwin and the Army Aviation Training Centre (AAvnTC) at Oakey.
Despite now performing very effectively in the ARH role for which it was purchased, the Tiger has been the subject of a sustained campaign by unknown forces within Army and Government for many years to replace it.
In January then-Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced that 29 Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters will be acquired via the FMS process from 2025 under Land 4503 Phase 1.
“Australia’s current Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter, the Tiger, should remain a useful armed reconnaissance capability that can contribute to Defence requirements until its withdrawal from service in 2028,” commented a Defence spokesperson.
“Its withdrawal will be synchronised with the introduction into service of its replacement, the AH-64E Apache.”
On 15 January, then-Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced the selection of the AH-64E Apache Guardian as Army’s next armed reconnaissance helicopter from 2025.
“Defence considered a number of helicopters against key criteria of proven ability, maturity and an off-the-shelf operating system,” Reynolds said in a statement at the time.
“The Apache Guardian is the most lethal, most survivable and lowest risk option, meeting all of Defence’s capability, through-life support, security and certification requirements. By pursuing a proven and low-risk system offered by the Apache, Defence will avoid the ongoing cost and schedule risk typically associated with developmental platforms.”
The total of 29 helicopters allows for 24 Apaches to be based at a single location, initially at least Robertson Barracks, in two operational ARH squadrons, and five allocated for training with the AAvnTC at Oakey. The program timeline calls for an Initial Operational Capability (IOC), represented by a troop of 12 helicopters, in 2026 and Final Operational Capability (FOC) with all 29 Apaches two years later.
The AH-64Es will be fitted with a Link 16 Tactical Data Link and role specific equipment includes the Longbow LLC APG-78 Longbow fire control radar (16 units), Lockheed Martin APR-48B Modernised Radar Frequency Interferometer (MRFI) and Lockheed Martin ASQ-170 Modernised Target Acquisition Designation System/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (MTADS/PNVS).
“These systems sense, detect and recognise and classify targets at a greater range than the current Tiger capability,” the Defence spokesperson said. “Additionally, the Apache has specific maritime modes for the fire control radar to enhance surface and air detection during amphibious operations.”
Second Pass approval for Land 4503/1 is expected to occur in 2022 and Defence says it is working with the US Government and US and local defence industry to develop domestic support solutions.
“An initial Support Contract Request for Tender has been released to BDA to establish support for the introduction of the Apache into service,” the spokesperson added. “This will seek to maximise Australian industry opportunities, requiring BDA to deliver an Australian Industry Capability Plan as part of contract deliverables.”
In January, BDA announced it has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with NIOA to support the Apache’s cannon and ammunition system and, separately, Defence released an infrastructure RFT to industry in August for Managing Contract Services to support the capability.
Under ESTL4505PH1, the work will include infrastructure and facilities work at Robertson Barracks and Robertson Close Training Area and the construction of a Forward Arming and Refuelling Point (FARP) at Oakey.
Light Special Forces support helicopter
Sixteen Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) light and rapidly-deployable helicopters are being acquired under Land 2097 Phase 4 (Light Special Forces Support Helicopter) to support Special Operations CT activities.
“The light helicopter will be in the four-tonne class and, by virtue of its size, it will be optimised for insertion and extraction of Special Forces teams within complex terrain, including dense urban environments, complementing the MRH 90 Taipan and enhancing the output of a combined helicopter formation,” the Defence spokesperson explained.
The previously announced timeline for the acquisition of the 16 light helicopters calls for major equipment delivery to begin occurring in 2022. Defence is looking for a helicopter that is already in service with other operators, capable of being rapidly airlifted aboard the RAAF’s C-17A Globemaster III (four helicopters in each aircraft) and able to be easily fitted with electro-optical Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) sensors and potentially weapons such as rockets and machine guns. The primary role of the helicopter is to provide air assault capability using small Special Forces teams, with secondary roles to include ISR, fire support and general utility and the successful helicopter will need to be readily reconfigured between roles.
The helicopters will be operated by 6 AVN at Holsworthy alongside the MRH 90s, with possible detachments to support Special Forces operations in Western Australia and elsewhere.
A Request for Proposals (RFP) was released to industry in August 2020 and three bidders responded, including Airbus Australia Pacific offering the Airbus Helicopters H145M, and Babcock and Jet Aviation each with a solution based on the Bell 429. The announcement of the successful bidder is expected before the end of the year, but as ADM reported in July, sources close to the project suggest the H145M has been eliminated from the competition.
Two Leonardo AW139 helicopters have been leased from Helicorp (Toll Helicopters) under Plan Corella, as an Army Interim Commercial Helicopter capability to preserve aircrew advanced flying skills and provide general aviation support to the ADF until MRH 90 Rate of Effort reaches desired goals. The initial contract term is due to end on 30 June 2023, albeit with two 12-month extension options.
“Defence has acted swiftly to implement this capability to preserve the advanced flying skills of Army aircrew. This capability will also support the wider ADF by providing general aviation support, including moving personnel and cargo in support of major exercises, training ADF units in helicopter operations and other non-combat tasks,” the spokesperson said.
“It will supplement Defence’s helicopter response operations by providing additional non-combat lift and emergency response capabilities to Army and the civil community from a highly capable and cost-effective commercially available aircraft.”
The future of battlefield aviation
The Defence Force Structure Plan 2020 forecasts up to $2.1 billion will be spent on a future long-range rotorcraft capability between 2028 and 2038; and $1.6 billion for what the document terms a ‘next generation rotorcraft with enhanced capabilities between 2035 and 2040, but does not provide further detail.
As ADM noted in the July/August issue, the US Army is staking its battlefield aviation future in its Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, which will acquire rotorcraft able to fly twice as far and twice as fast as its current Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, beginning in 2030.
As it looks towards its own future battlefield aviation capability, Defence says its key value proposition for Army Aviation lies in its ability to provide speed and reach the Joint Force. “The ability to improve on both of these attributes in conjunction with enhanced force protection and awareness will be key elements of any future acquisition,” the spokesperson said.
“However, the core criteria will be maturity and sustainability, ensuring we remain true to the hard-won lessons of our past. Army Aviation will seek to stabilise in the near term with reliable and sustainable capabilities. Doing so will reduce the risk associated with the transition to Next Generation Rotorcraft in the 2040s and beyond.”