The fate of Army’s fleet of 22 Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters hangs in the balance. The Managing Director of Airbus Australia Pacific, Andrew Mathewson, has revealed today that Defence rejected an offer of 22 upgraded Tigers plus an additional 7 H145Ms to meet the requirement for LAND 4503. The fear of the company is that the Army might rush to a direct FMS purchase of 29 Boeing Apache attack helicopters, with immediate and disastrous consequences for almost 300 of their Brisbane-based engineers and software developers, who will face redundancy.
Apparently the Government has stated that a decision on the way ahead for LAND 4503 will be made before the end of the year. Given that the Tigers have plenty of airframe life in them – they could keep flying until 2040 – it is not at all clear what the advantage to Australia is of scrapping a competition that will lead to major cost savings, no matter which helicopter is selected.
It has been an open secret for years that some sections of the Army have always wanted the US Apache, seemingly oblivious to the fact that after initial problems with availability, the entire Tiger fleet is performing extremely well – not only operationally but also financially. However, the way that the Defence system works is that once guidance was given in the 2016 White Paper to replace the Tigers, that is the path down which the bureaucracy is moving – irrespective of the major and positive changes that have taken place during the last four years. This has meant that funds have not been made available to upgrade the Tigers – for example by integrating Link 16, which the company has offered to do on four separate occasions – making their replacement something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.
None of this is to detract from the Apache, which is a formidable helicopter that has been manufactured in huge numbers – around 2,400 to date – and sold by the US to almost 20 different users. Apaches are still being built, but the Tiger production line has closed having supplied 180 to four nations: Australia, Germany, France and Spain.
A problem for Tiger and Airbus Helicopters is that Defence is now so awash with money that a A$3 billion saving has little appeal. It might also be that as Australia tries to get even closer to the US – as difficult as that is to imagine – geostrategic considerations might be working in favour of the Apache and the other US competitor for LAND 4503, the Bell-Textron Viper.
At the very least, it is to be hoped that the government will continue with an open competition for the project, rather than being stampeded by Army into a purchase of a capable but expensive solution. Such a purchase will require a complete overhaul of the Army’s training and support system as well as all of the usual issues associated with bringing a new platform into service.
Airbus Helicopters might be down, but they are not out. It is their intention to now offer 29 Tigers for LAND 4503. These will be 22 Australian Tigers plus seven that they will acquire from another operator to meet the required total. These can all be upgraded in Brisbane at a cost that will be a fraction of that for new Apaches or Vipers.