• Soldiers from 2 Commando on board a 6th Aviation Regiment Black Hawk helicopter.
    Soldiers from 2 Commando on board a 6th Aviation Regiment Black Hawk helicopter. Defence

Under Land 2097 Phase 4, the Commonwealth is looking to acquire up to 16 helicopters in the four-tonne weight range for use by Special Forces based out of Holsworthy. The capability will be an off the shelf purchase with a range of requirements for various mission roles.

Kell O’Brien from Special Operations Command outlined that the craft would have to be able to perform domestic and maritime counter terrorism, special operational recovery and combat SAR missions with a strong focus on recovery, interdiction and assault.

“The capability needs to be able to insert and/or extract six operators at precision landing points,” O’Brien said. “This helicopter is replacing Black Hawk but this is not a Black Hawk replacement program, as that program is transitioning to the MRH-90 Taipan.”

He also explained the need to be able to perform in a range of environments and deploy four platforms from the back of a C-17.

Colonel James Brown, director of the battlefield aviation program, was clear in his need for a platform that is ‘ready to go from day one with no special tools or cradles in place’ when it comes to C-17 transport.

“A corporal needs to be able to do this without looking a manual every other moment or needing special tools,” COL Brown told the 100+ room of industry people, confirming that the program is ‘an adjunct to Taipan’ rather than a replacement.

Colonel Brown was also blunt in his assessment of the sustainment environment.

“Reliability, availability and maintainability are key,” he said. “We’re after a mature supply chain. We do not have the people to throw at this program. Fleet size and concurrency of operations across training, ready to go at short notice and deployment under a joint task group scenario are my priorities here. 6th Aviation’s response time is measured in minutes.”

Lieutenant Colonel Travis Hunt from the CASG program office went into further detail about his team’s expectations; a certified aircraft already operating in this role with the engineering work done for fast roping, a sniping position, FLIR fit-out and arming possibilities (a forward-facing machine gun was mentioned). Colonel Brown said the Land 2097 Phase 4 helicopter was not a light attack helicopter (no missiles please) and arming is to be presented as an option rather than a requirement.

The office is looking at running an RFT in Q1 2020 with 4-6 months consideration and an announcement in Q4 2021 to cover both acquisition and support. LTCOL Hunt confirmed that radios and GPS will be supplied as Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) with other GFE options still being explored.

The schedule was outlined as: phase-in 2022-2023 (flying, learning time); capability realisation 2024-2025 (full delivery and support system in place at Holsworthy complete with new facilities supplied by the Commonwealth); and a possible capability extension in 2026-2028 (additional aircraft, arming/weapons).

The program office is also keeping an eye on the US Future Vertical Lift program capability as a possible successor.

Amanda Hall, assistant director for AIC, confirmed that the AIC approach is more focused on ‘maximising opportunity by creating viable and sustainable industry’, noting that there are contractual commitments in terms of work packages and assurance activities to ensure that the outlined AIC plan is complied with.

“We don’t not prescribe percentages of AIC or weighting in decision making processes,” Hall said. “It’s more about development and enhancement of Australian industry by creating global and national opportunities.”

All three presenters noted that leveraging existing industrial bases would be key.

ADM Comment: There are already a mix of contenders who are positioning themselves for the program, with all but Leonardo confirming they will be bidding the program.

  • Airbus H145M: A medium-sized military multi-role helicopter capable of performing a wide spectrum of missions with a common platform, from transport, SAR, and medevac to armed scout. Airbus have a strong in country presence thanks to their work on Tiger and Taipan and a large civil fleet with support facilities already in the greater Sydney area. The platform is on the larger end of the four-tonne requirement but can easily answer the six-person requirement.
  • Bell 407GT: A light attack helicopter manufactured by Bell Helicopter Textron. It is a multi-role, multi-mission helicopter, which can be reconfigured to suit troop transport, medical evacuation, search and rescue or command and control missions. Bell also has a strong civilian support presence in the greater Sydney area thanks to a substantial fleet nationally. The company has teamed with Hawker Pacific to answer the sustainment/supply chain requirements.
  • Boeing AH-6i Little Bird: A highly capable light attack/armed reconnaissance helicopter specifically designed with superior performance characteristics and flexible, easily configurable mission equipment ideal for light attack, precision attack, anti-armour, close combat attacks, reconnaissance, security and escort, troop insertion/extraction, combat search and rescue. Little is in the name and it might have trouble comfortably answering the six-person requirement. Boeing is able to also leverage a strong support network with a strong presence already in country.
  • Leonardo AW109 Trekker: A light-weight, twin-engine, multi-purpose helicopter providing search and rescue organisations with a high speed, high performance, twin-engine helicopter with leading-edge mission equipment.

All four platforms can do the job. They will each do it slightly differently and each has its own pros and cons when it comes to how it fulfils the mission set. What is clear from the program office though is that C-17 deployability and availability/reliability will be key factors in their decision making process.

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