On the surface, one of the surprises delivered by the recent Defence Integrated Investment Program (DIIP) was the plan to replace Army’s Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) from the middle of the next decade.
Nigel Pittaway | Melbourne
What’s more, the DIIP singled out Tiger among all the other platforms and capabilities discussed as having a ‘troubled’ history.
Industry had been planning for a Capability Assurance Program, which would call for either an upgrade or replacement of the ARH as forecast in the previous Defence Capability Plan, but the DIIP calls for a scaled back ‘Assurance Program’ between 2017 and 2026, followed by the ARH replacement project between 2021 and 2031.
"If Tiger remains on the trajectory it is on now, I would thoroughly expect Tiger Mk.3 to compete for that new acquisition."
It’s not all bad news for Tiger though, with the long-awaited declaration of Final Operational Capability (FOC) occurring in mid-April and reports that the sustainment remediation program between the Commonwealth and industry put in place at the beginning of last year continues to improve both cost of ownership and Rate of Effort (RoE). It is therefore quite likely that if these improvements continue on their current trajectory, an upgraded Tiger may well prove to be a serious candidate in the future competition.
DIIP and the ARH roadmap
Not everyone was surprised by the direction taken by the DIIP however; Major General Andrew Mathewson, Head of Helicopter Division for the Capability and Sustainment Group (CASG) points out that it has always been the Commonwealth’s intention to compete Tiger’s upgrade.
“The intention is to replace Tiger in the mid-2020s, but that’s a long time from now and it’s important to reflect on the sort of capability Defence seeks in that timeframe. For example, we are certainly moving towards a capability that can present a manned/unmanned teaming arrangement,” he explained to ADM.
“And at this stage Tiger’s upgrade path is only just starting to unfold and we have been very clear with industry that our future requirements won’t be dictated by that specific upgrade path. We plan to compete an upgraded Tiger with other products that are in the market around that timeframe.”
For the record, the DIIP forecasts that between $500 and $750 million will be spent on the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter Assurance Program, aimed at maintaining Tiger’s effectiveness. However the document notes that ARH operations will increasingly rely on real-time intelligence and mission data, with access to the Common Operating Picture to enable it to integrate with joint forces – or in simple terms, Tiger needs a tactical data link (TDL).
To address this, the ARH Replacement program will spend between $5-6 billion and will consider either manned and unmanned systems, or a combination of both.
There is no shrinking away from the fact that the Tiger has had a troubled history in ADF service and it is also true that the program is now five years late. However not all of those delays can be blamed on the helicopter itself, which is now operating very effectively and is well-regarded within Army for its capability.
It is certainly true that Tiger has not achieved the required Rate of Effort required by Army of around 6,000 flight hours per year either and this, together with a broad range of support and sustainment issues, has resulted in an unacceptably high cost of ownership.
This issue continues to be addressed by the Commonwealth, together with its prime industry partners Airbus Group Australia Pacific, Airbus Helicopters and their industry partners, via a ‘repair by the hour’ agreement, which came into effect on January 1 last year.
Since then, Tiger has shown a marked and (so far) sustained improvement, with the RoE increasing by 20 per cent during 2015 to around 4,500 hours and aircraft availability has increased by eight per cent. If this continues on its current trajectory, MAJGEN Mathewson predicts that an acceptable RoE could be achieved sometime next year.
“This year I expect to see the RoE grow by another 20 per cent, but it’s still not achieving the amount of flying hours Army seeks from the aircraft and there are a whole range of issues for it failing to meet the requirement,” he detailed.
“Some of those are due to the aircraft’s reliability, availability and maintainability, which are issues that we continue to work on, together with our industry partners. But some of it is due to the challenges of operating the aircraft in the Northern Territory. Darwin is a very difficult place, in terms of operating a complex weapons platform in high heat, high humidity and it is a fairly isolated location.”
Airbus Group Australia Pacific’s head of Governmental Helicopters ‘Jock’ Crocombe said that since the new contractual arrangement has been in place the cost of ownership has almost halved and is on-track to meet the customer’s requirements in the near future.
“We have carried out work internally within our organisation and we are working with our suppliers, who have been very supportive, and we have been able to bring the cost base down significantly. There were specific targets that we had to make and we have been able to make those targets,” he said to ADM. “We are just as committed as we ever were to improving Tiger and we will continue with all the efforts we have launched, if not more.”
Tiger’s Achilles heel is it’s bespoke EuroGrid tactical moving map display and associated ground mission segment, which enables helicopters to share data with one another and with their ground mission station, but cannot interface with the Elbit Battle Management System (BMS) being rolled out throughout Army, or with other tactical assets such as fast jets.
In all fairness it should be pointed out that a tactical data link, which would enable Tiger to integrate with the wider ADF and its coalition partners, was not part of the original ARH requirements set out in the ARH project definition stage back in the 1990s and the reality of networked operations was still some way off into the future.
To partially redress this shortcoming, an interim tactical data link (iTDL), which consists of an Elbit Enhanced Position Location Reporting System (EPLRS) digital radio which interfaces with tablets provided to the crew.
Five Tigers have been modified so far and the system is about to enter series production, but although Tiger can now integrate with the Army’s BMS, the system it is not integrated within the helicopter and is a supplemental system in a cockpit which already has a high workload.
Tiger breeding program?
This deficiency is not just peculiar to ARH and the French Army is proposing to upgrade its current Tiger fleet to Mk.2 configuration, which will update a number of key systems. These include the addition of a Variable Message Format (VMF) capability which although not a TDL, will allow French Tigers to share some data with other assets.
Beyond the Mk.2 is Tiger Mk.3, which will incorporate new technologies and weapons, including a state of the art TDL. Airbus Group Australia Pacific is planning to propose an upgrade to Army’s ARH fleet to the interim Mk.2 configuration within the DIIP Assurance Program, followed by further upgrade to Mk.3 in the middle of the next decade, in line with the ARH Replacement Program.
The current proposal is for both the Tiger Mk.2 and Mk.3 to be rebuilds of ARH airframes and although this may require the acquisition of additional helicopters to maintain capability during the upgrade process, Airbus Group Australia Pacific predicts the work could be accomplished at a significantly lower cost than the acquisition of a new helicopter type.
“I certainly anticipate that by that stage, if Tiger remains on the trajectory it is on now, I would thoroughly expect Tiger Mk.3 to compete for that new acquisition,” MAJGEN Mathewson said.
Either way, Tiger isn’t going away anytime soon. It will be in Army service at least for the next decade and it may just be that it will be its own replacement.
This article first appeared in the June 2016 edition of ADM.