Finally, it’s official. Australia’s long-expected dumping of its European-backed Taipan helicopters in favour of US Black Hawks closes an inglorious chapter in the country’s defence acquisition history.
Over the past few years, there has been no shortage of negative headlines about the MRH90 Taipan, which has been used by both the army and the navy.
The entire fleet of 47 helicopters was grounded in 2019 to fix the tail rotor blades. Defence officials later conceded a fault found in one of the helicopters that year – when it was on its way to pick up the Australian defence force chief, Angus Campbell – could have led to “catastrophic consequences” if left unfixed.
In 2020, 27 of the helicopters were grounded after some cabin sliding door rails were deemed unserviceable. The aircraft received yet another burst of negative publicity when defence officials conceded the door was not wide enough to enable the safe exit of personnel from the helicopter while it was firing.
In 2021 the defence department revealed it was spending $37m to hire private helicopters as it grappled with low availability of the Taipans. By the end of the year, then-minister Peter Dutton had had enough: he announced plans to buy up to 40 Black Hawks from the US and to bring forward the retirement of the Taipans, although no contracts were signed by the time of the change of government.
On Wednesday the Labor government confirmed that it would, indeed, buy the Black Hawks from the US at a likely cost of about $3bn. As a result, Defence intends to cease Taipan flying operations by December 2024 – 13 years earlier than original expectations.
The defence minister, Richard Marles, explained the government was switching course “because really, over the course of the last decade, we’ve struggled in terms of getting the hours out of the Taipans that we would want, both with maintenance and having spare parts available”.
But this is a story of woe that goes back much further than that.
In 2004, the Howard government was facing what was then considered to be a difficult election battle seeking a fourth term in office and announced what was meant to be positive news for local defence industry jobs.
It trumpeted the planned $1bn purchase of the first 12 new “state-of-the-art” troop-lift helicopters for the army. The Howard government’s press release on 31 August 2004 declared this as a win for Australian industry in “helicopter assembly, common and similar aircraft systems, avionics equipment, structural and engine technologies and training systems”.
It was only later that the full picture was revealed.
In a damning report, the Australian National Audit Office disclosed that the Howard government’s 2004 decision had gone against against the initial departmental recommendation for Black Hawks for two of the phases of the program.
This fateful decision, the audit office found, had caused “significant implications” including “unforeseen immaturity in the MRH90 system design and the support system” and a “high cost of sustaining the aircraft”. Defence, it said, “was on the back foot from the start” and ended up negotiating key points from a weaker negotiating position.
The program has been listed as a “project of concern” since 2011. The chief of army, Lt Gen Simon Stuart, said recently that the cost of operating a Taipan was “in the order of $48,000 an hour”. He acknowledged the good-faith “efforts by all stakeholders” including Airbus, the part-French government-owned company that continues to provide maintenance support.
The French were reportedly lobbying the Albanese government against ditching the helicopter early, but Wednesday’s announcement is considered very unlikely to cause an Aukus-scale rift with Paris.
That’s because the decision can easily be presented as rubber-stamping a Morrison government-era one. Clearly eager to prevent a repeat of the “I don’t think; I know” episode, the Albanese government was determined to stay in touch with the French government throughout the process. As Marles said on Wednesday, “It’s definitely not a surprise, and we’ve been completely clear with them.”
But the Black Hawk acquisition cannot be divorced from the broader trend of Australia’s drawing even closer to the US in a military-technology sense – something that will only be accelerated by Aukus. Dutton himself once pointed to this as an argument in favour of shifting to the Lockheed Martin-produced helicopters. He said it was “interoperable with our counterparts and with our allies” and was “the favoured platform in the United States”.
Government sources have played down any suggestion of compensation being paid for retiring the helicopters early, although Airbus said it would “work with the Australian government and our employees to provide assistance for the impacted workers to remain within the country’s aerospace industry”.
The company said it was “fully committed to providing our full support for the MRH90 fleet in Australia for as long as it remains in service” and it praised air crews and support stuff for ensuring “the fleet has operated safely and completed important missions”.
There is no suggestion of bad faith on behalf of the manufacturer and suppliers, but a key line from the audit office report resonates even more strongly today.
“If there was just one lesson to learn from the history of Defence acquisition projects,” the report said, “it would be the need to be respectful of the inherent risks in these complex transactions and not over‑confident that they are under control.”