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An important element in the Australian government’s increasingly thin defence of its decision to scrap the Taipan helicopter fleet is that a formal request from Ukraine was only received on December 17.  The argument goes that by then it was too late to alter the process and the helicopters had already been destroyed.

The problem with that argument is new information reveals that the government was told of Ukraine’s interest in the middle of October by a senior Liberal Senator.

Between October 7 and 12, Senator David Fawcett attended a major NATO meeting in Copenhagen and had several discussions while there with members of the Ukraine military and politicians.  They discussed the retirement of the Taipan fleet and the potential use of the helicopters in the fightback against the Russian invasion. The Ukrainians were enthusiastic – especially about using for medical evacuation (MEDEVAC), where they have the potential to save dozens of young lives every day.

Senator Fawcett confirmed to APDR that when he returned to Canberra in the middle of the month, he informed the government of his discussions at NATO and the interest expressed by Ukraine’s military.  For the moment, his priority is getting some of the Taipans back into service and transferred to Ukraine and he prefers not to go into more details just yet but is firmly on the record that he made the government fully aware of the situation back then.

He is one of the most experienced and knowledge Parliamentarians when it comes to military matters, especially regarding helicopters. He is a former Army test pilot and has flown many rotary-winged aircraft.  Senator Fawcett has a reputation for thoroughness and integrity, a consequence of which is that he is held in high regard by all sides of politics. He was also the former Assistant Defence Minister in the Morrison government.

Despite this, both the Defence Minister Richard Marles and Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy continue to propagate the myth that they knew nothing about Ukraine’s interest until December 17.  Clearly, this is not credible.

In addition to Senator Fawcett’s conversations in mid-October, the Ambassador for Ukraine, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, also made his normal regular representations for military aid throughout the entire period.  Yet the government expects the Australian public to believe that they were somehow completely in the dark until shortly before Christmas, despite everything that was going on – including daily media references to the Russian invasion.

Clearly the government – and the Army – were in a mad rush to destroy all the helicopters to stop then being used by anyone else.  Even now falsehoods regarding their exact condition are being repeated.  On January 18, in his capacity as Acting Defence Minister, Pat Conroy said:

“None of the aircraft are currently in flying condition and it is not feasible to return the aircraft to an operational state.”

This is simply not true. Several aviation professionals with inside knowledge have explained to APDR that the Taipans are in fact in a wide variety of configurations. Some have been almost completely pulled apart, but many others are in far better condition. Their assessment is that anywhere between 12 and 20 Taipans could be reassembled without any great difficulty.

This process could be carried out not only by the OEM, Airbus Helicopters, but also by a few hundred Army Aviation technicians who now have nothing to do until large numbers of replacement Black Hawk helicopters arrive in the coming years.

Another matter that irks many of these same professionals – to put it mildly – is that the government continues to smear the reputation of Taipan, hinting darkly that there are safety concerns about them.  As we have explained in many previous articles, the Taipans – part of the NH90 family of multi-role helicopters – are one of the world’s safest military platforms.

There are more than 500 of them in service around the world, including in ten NATO countries, and they have a superb safety record.   Since 2008 they have experienced eight fatalities in only 11 reported incidents, including the four Australian personnel who lost their lives in a July crash last year during Exercise Talisman Sabre.

As a result of examining the Flight Data Recorder and cockpit voice recorder recovered from the crash site, it has already been concluded that the Taipan was functioning completely normally until the moment of impact.  The government knows this.

Having said that, for several years Greens Senator David Shoebridge has been pursuing Army over a rare but potentially serious flaw in the night vision systems of the Taipan.  This is a highly technical matter including the interaction of the pilot’s TopOwl helmet-mounted display, and its symbology when used in conjunction with the Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) sensor.

The longstanding concern of Senator Shoebridge is that Army has been aware of this Australian-specific issue but has not taken all the necessary steps to fix it. During Senate Estimates hearings on October 25 last year, this exchange with the Head of Army Aviation Command, Major General Stephen Jobson, is illustrative:

“Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You see, General Jobson, when you didn’t like the reports that came out of the flight testing, rather than fix the equipment and address the concerns or potentially ground the aircraft, Army Aviation went through a process of getting further reports to try and discredit those reports and discredit the risks.

“That’s what actually happened, isn’t it? Rather than address the problem, there was a desperate search for reports which would permit them to continue to be put in the air despite the safety issues.

“Major Gen. Jobson: Respectfully, I do not agree with your assessment. Once again, I’ll reiterate that a thorough professional process was undertaken in accordance with the Defence Aviation Safety Framework that ensured the equipment could be brought in to service for the benefit of our aircrew to improve upon previous equipment that had been employed in the aircraft system, to ensure that we are putting safe equipment into the hands of our people to operate in the field.

“Senator SHOEBRIDGE: General Jobson, you know that the 20 April report on Top Owl found that the visual acuity in the peripheral vision of a pilot using that was seriously degraded. Degrading the acuity in the peripheral vision is a particular risk to a fast-moving low flying aircraft, isn’t it?

“Major Gen. Jobson: Once again, in answer to your question, characterisations in the report that you are referring to, those characterisations are made. They then inform a subsequent process as a result of those characterisations, to further explore and assess that equipment. That is undertaken by a larger group of experts, including qualified test pilots, senior standards pilots, subject matter experts and engineers from a range of services and groups and expertise, so that Army Aviation is able to assure itself that the equipment can be brought into service in a manner that ensures that risks are minimised so far as reasonably practical.”

The full transcript is here: https://www.aph.gov.au/-/media/Estimates/fadt/supp2324/Hansards/1_Defence_251023_PROOF.pdf?la=en&hash=19F560738F7CD0709A437B403847A0940E00EB7F; particularly at pages 47 and 60.

It seems completely contradictory for the government to be hinting that the Taipans are unsafe when the Head of Army Aviation has assured the Senate just the opposite.  Either the helicopters are completely fine, or they should not have been flying at night during an extremely demanding exercise in very bad weather during Talisman Sabre. You can’t have it both ways.

In any case even if the concerns of Senator Shoebridge are correct, this is still not a reason to block their transfer to Ukraine.  Either the problem can be fixed – the best solution – or pilots can be made aware of the very remote possibility of a glitch occurring and be prepared and train for the possibility.  As Shadow Defence Minister Andrew Hastie has explained in the context of the request from Ukraine, when you are at war your acceptance of risk is greater because you are fighting for survival.

Another feature of the government’s account totally lacking in credibility is the argument that Defence followed some sort of “process” that determined in the space of a few days that there was no international interest in acquiring the Taipan fleet.  Defence processes take months – if not years – for just about everything.  We know that the decision to scrap the helicopters was taken on September 28 personally by Defence Minister Marles, but the government expects us to believe that by October 18 a detailed, thorough, and structured investigation into their sale had been concluded.

No information has been supplied to back up this extraordinary claim.  The package would need to include 45 helicopters – some with different engines – and all with variations in hours flown. Their electronic subsystems are extremely complex and expensive.  They are supported by a raft of training devices – including full motion flight simulators worth millions of dollars – as well as spares, support equipment and documentation.

Just the task of pulling that together to define what was for sale would require a major effort.  There is no evidence that anything even remotely like this has ever occurred.

If at the end of a detailed study there was still no interest in buying them, that is not a good argument for destroying them. Put them in storage and keep them as a reserve. Or, most importantly – give them to Ukraine!

It is unclear why the government is digging in its heels and stonewalling, especially with the use of misleading or blatantly false information. Defence might have temporarily succeeded in their nasty little plot to bury the Taipans, but Ministers Marles and Conroy are now in serious danger of burying their own careers.

They are doing this simply to please half a dozen senior Army officers who have waged a decade-long campaign to get rid of Taipans and replace them with the old Black Hawks they know and love from the 1980s and 90s.

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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.

24 COMMENTS

  1. So what the Article states is that a Formal, government to government request was made in December. The informal “expression of interest” as expressed by the Senator, while of interest, does not, despite the author’s assertion, in anyway constitute a formal approach. Nothing that the Senator is in opposition.

    The helicopters were rated as unfit for service and beset by issues for years…notably while the Senator was in Government and a junior Defence minister .

    • I guess you haven’t read any of the previous articles I have written explaining that the helicopters were fine. It all comes back to the way Defence managed the fleet.

      To start destroying an entire fleet of helicopters when you know a formal request is likely is totally unconscionable. The fact that Senator Fawcett is part of the Opposition is irrelevant.

      • Great article. Thanks for standing up.for the tax payers and exposing this dreadful government for what it is. A corrupt, lying government. And our pathetic ADF full of corruption also. All the top have their heads so far up their own arses it’s not funny. Go and retire instead of destroying our once respected military and reputation.

  2. As an Australian and Veteran.. l am disgusted with this Woeful Disrespect for Australian Tax Payers ‘hard earned tax $$ .. and that it can be ‘RUBBISH DUMPED’ .. At Futher Large Debt ‘to Already Struggling Aussies ! .. This decision by ‘Self interested Army Brass’ and ‘WHOEVER else is behind it .. THIS WILL NOT be ACCEPTED by AUSTRALIANS and it is HIGH time “SUCH WAISTAGE of AUSTRALIANS TAX $$ Will No LONGER Stand” .. “Ukrainian is fighting for its Very Survival Against Putin” ! And YOU Want to SCRAP THEM ??. Hang your Damn Disgraceful heads in Shame ! ( and it would not surprise me At All, to learn “some of the Experts Referred to by the ‘So elequant “Maj Gen Jobson. Would be the likes of PWC and or some of the other Big Consultancy players. I do wonder, just how much did we AustralianTax Payers have WASTED without our Knowledge ?? ) “A Disgraceful Disrespectful and Soulless Refusal to the Ukrainian People.

  3. The point being made that the Government was aware there was interest from the Ukrainians in October is informative and appreciated. The more information that comes to light about this affair the better. Criticisms of whether it was a formal request or not and to whom it was expressed are hardly relevant to the real issues here, namely that they were informed there was interest.

    Furthermore, common sense would indicate that a thinking Government Minister or Department head would consider such a possibility likely even if not approached, or we could have approached the Ukrainians ourselves to check.
    Neither of these actions were undertaken which is damning in and of itself.

    Getting rid of a valuable defence and civil emergency capability before any replacement has arrived and is in service is inept at best or unconscionable malfeasance at worst.

    Even more damning is destroying said capability.
    Words to describe this behavior are hard to come by, but it is borderline criminal in my view and should be scrutinized heavily. Deliberately destroying a defence resource would be a crime for a member of our Defence forces would it not? Disciplinary actions would follow.
    We should expect our elected representatives and our departmental officials to be held to the same or higher standard.

    I look forward to further robust investigation of this issue, thanks for your efforts
    Mr Bergmann.

    ps: Whether we should be giving military equipment away at all, or involved in foreign wars is another issue entirely.

    • Thanks – and I agree that the situation is appalling. One of the worst individual Defence mismanagement cases I have ever seen – and that’s really saying something.

  4. This just gets better and better, At this stage anybody with an ounce of sense would be saying “Hang on a minute, let’s take another look at this” but the ministers in question seem oblivious to the facts. This decision on the Taipans is just another disaster the DoD and its Ministers have overseen (don’t get me wrong,the last mob didn’t cover themselves in glory either) at this rate the Navy will be little more than a Coast Guard, the Army just another Division in the USArmy and the Airforce an extension of Coast Watch.

    • I am genuinely unable to understand the Government’s think on this. Do they actually believe anyone in their right mind in the community would approve of such a bizarre and secret scheme?

      • Kym,
        Have you heard the reports that Ukraine representatives were offered our FA-18A & FA-18B refusing them & describing them as “flying trash”?
        This of course doesn’t excuse the numerous examples of obvious incompetence eg NH90 & Tiger platforms being operated by other defence forces quite effectively, that said IF this report is accurate, it would go some way to explaining the wasteful & unacceptable method of disposal of the NH90.
        Always enjoy the articles at ADPR for their accuracy & clarity.
        Thanks

        • Thanks. I’m very sceptical of the “flying trash” story, first mentioned in the AFR. The Ukrainians are very professional and that doesn’t ring true. My own guess is that it’s a story planted by the PMO, or Defence – or both – designed to cover up their own total incompetence wrt the Taipan fleet.

  5. I am a German. I worked over a decade for the NH90 Program. This is not fair to all the professional and hard working european engineers involved the TAUA- versions to serve you with the best technology on the marked and it really hurts to read about that. It’s a political mud….it’s so sad!

  6. If the government knew about the Ukrainian interest in October it is hard to see good reasons why they would then continue (accelerate?) destroying the helicopters.

    To me one obvious possible motive to not giving the helicopters to Ukraine would be avoiding embarrassment. If the Ukrainians were able to successfully and safely fly the Taipans in that war, it would make the Australian decision to ground them look very stupid. So then the government would be motivated to want to prevent the transfer, in which case destroying the helicopters would be a logical way to prevent it.

    To me this looks like burying the evidence to avoid embarrassment over a stupid original decision being exposed.

  7. Wake up Australia, this government’s burial of the submarine & helicopter replacement scandals is just the tip of a DOD corruption iceberg. For over 20 years, governments of both persuasions have routinely buried the ADF’s blatant war crimes across Afghanistan, Iraq & Syria alongside the soaring suicide rate of ADF members, fuelled by systemic neglect of combat induced PTSD or proliferation of rape, assault and bullying inside ADFA and barracks of the rank and file. Can’t imagine why ADF recruitment – retention rates are haemorrhaging while courageous ADF whistleblowers are being silenced or crucified in secret courts.

  8. I think (thanks to articles and Journalists like this one) we are starting to get the transparency we want , in so much people are starting to see right through the lies and incompetency in Government.

  9. But Kym why does Norway want its money back as it ditches its NH-90. Why does Sweden want to get rid of its NH-90s?

    • Hi Steve – I guess you haven’t read any of my previous articles on the topic. Of the more than 500 NH90s built, Norway has 14. They insisted on a unique ASW version of the helicopters with their own dipping sonar and lightweight torpedoes – an integration nightmare. Sweden has had issues with their MEDEVAC version – and despite the NH90/Taipans having a very roomy cabin (much larger than a Black Hawk or Sea Hawk) insisted on a higher ceiling in theirs, unsurprisingly resulting in problems. I do not have the information that Sweden has withdrawn, but they have certainly threatened to do so.

      In other words, 90% of NH90/Taipan users – including New Zealand, who have about the world’s highest availability rate with a mere 8 helicopters – are happy with theirs. So: who has got it wrong – the rest of the world, or Australia?

  10. Interesting to note the French have just ordered more NH90’s for their special forces.
    Why can their special forces use them but ours allegedly can’t

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