The Australian Defence Force’s fleet of helicopters is part-way through its second major transformation in 20 years. Following the decade-long multi-phased Project AIR 9000 helicopter fleet rationalisation effort which saw nine ADF helicopter types reduced to five, a further rejigging is now underway.
AIR 9000 REDUX
AIR 9000 was an ambitious program for such a small military force, with the retirement of eight ageing or obsolete helicopter types, and the introduction into service of five new models in quick succession.
Following the AIR 9000 Phase 1 scoping study, the first cab off the acquisition rank was the Phase 2 Additional Troop Lift helicopter which sought to augment the Australian Army’s fleet of 34 Sikorsky S-70A-9 Black Hawks with 12 new machines. Despite Army’s reported preference for the then-new Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk, the NHI/Eurocopter MRH 90 – a version based on Germany’s NH 90 TTH – was selected in 2005 on the back of a local assembly program and the development of an ongoing composite-manufacturing and maintenance capability.
Running concurrently with Phase 2, AIR 9000 Phase 3 sought to buy the Royal Australian Navy some time by implementing a Capability Assurance Program (CAP) for its ageing S-70B-2 Seahawks, pending a planned replacement of that airframe.
Some of the improvements included new sensors, improvements to the gearbox, a crash-data recorder, and a new countermeasures system and electronic support measures (ESM).
In 2006, AIR 9000 Phase 4 resulted in an order for 28 additional MRH 90s to replace the Black Hawks from 2012, while Phase 6 saw an additional six MRH 90s ordered to replace the Royal Australian Navy’s remaining Westland Sea King Mk.50s in the fleet logistics role. All of the Army and Navy MRH 90s were to be drawn from a common pool of machines supported by Australian Aerospace (now Airbus Australia Pacific) at Brisbane.