ECA NovThe official announcement on January 18 that Australia will ditch 47 Taipan Multi-Role Helicopters (MRH) and replace them with Blackhawk UH-60M has been widely expected. The previous Defence Minister Peter Dutton foreshadowed this development in December 2021 on the day when the last of the previous generation Blackhawks were retired.

This comes just weeks after the U.S. Army announced on December 6 that it will be replacing its Blackhawks with the Bell V-280 Valor next generation assault aircraft.  Strictly speaking, these are not helicopters because they are based on the tilt rotor concept of being able to rotate the engines during flight shifting the propellers from a vertical position for take-off and descent to the horizontal plane for normal flight.  This method combines the performance of helicopters with that of conventional aircraft.

The USMC has been using earlier versions of the technology in the form of the V-22 since 2007.  Around 500 of them have been built, so the tilt-rotor concept is quite mature and has been selected by the U.S. and Japan.

The UH-60M is the latest version of the Blackhawk, which first flew in 1974.  More than 4,000 have been built and they are one of the most recognisable military helicopters in the western world.  Australia selected the Taipan to replace early generation Blackhawks for a number of reasons, including that the MRH had modern fly-by-wire controls rather than mechanical systems, advanced sensors such as night vision, and a rear loading ramp – still unique for a helicopter in the 10-tonne class.

As has been frequently reported, Army has been unhappy with the level of availability of the MRH fleet, which has been the subject of numerous groundings, some of which have been for dubious technical reasons.  This lack of availability has, in turn, driven up the cost of each flying hour.  To give an extreme example, if the annual support budget is $300 million and the fleet is grounded, except for one helicopter for one hour, then the official cost per flying hour is $300 million – which is ridiculous in real life situations.

An Army pilot recently summarised the situation to APDR in the following colloquial terms:

“The MRH is easily the best helicopter I have ever flown – by far.  But to be effective when you turn the ignition key on it has to work.”

Other pilots have spoken enthusiastically about the benefits of fly-by-wire, which includes 4-axis flight control, that allows very precise auto-hover and confined space landings even in extreme conditions.  An MRH is about the same dimensions as a Blackhawk and they both have an empty weight of just over 6 tonnes.  They can carry an extra 1.4 tonnes with a maximum take-off weight of 10,600kg v 9,200kg – though some sources indicate that a UH-60M has an MTOW of almost 10 tonnes, narrowing the gap.

As has been discussed previously in APDR, there has been frequent criticism of the MRH family regarding cost and availability. They are currently being operated by 14 nations, of which two – Australia and Norway – have decided to discontinue their use.  It has proven almost impossible to understand why the majority of operators seem to have overcome these problems – or have decided to live with them – while two have not.

People have been quick to blame the European manufacturer, Airbus Helicopters, but while this has been a factor the reality seems to be a far more complex mix involving contracts and the support arrangements that various services have put in place.

As an aside, in retrospect it would have been far better for the MRH fleet to have been maintained by the RAAF, which has systems in place to support advanced digital platforms.  The same can be said about the Tiger Armed Reconnaissance helicopters, which set the pattern of first being maligned and then ditched because of support issues and replaced with older generation (albeit updated) Apache AH-64Es.

The 40 UH-60Ms will cost more than $2 billion to acquire and their annual support costs are unclear at this stage.  Given this amount of money, one wonders if this matter was considered by the Defence Strategic Review. It should have been. Perhaps it was – and unlike every other acquisition snagged up in that process has been given the all-clear.

The big question for Army is why they are moving to the UH-60M when their U.S. counterparts have selected the V-280 as their Blackhawk replacement.  The decision is under protest from rival Lockheed Martin, but this will probably only serve to delay the project by a month or two.

The V-280 has a maximum cruising speed of 520kph; the Blackhawk 300kph.  They can carry 4 tonnes more payload than a UH-60M and have about double the combat range of around 1,400km.  In summary, they can fly further, faster, higher and with more troops and equipment.

The V-280 still has some time to go before scaling up to full rate production and entering service, which is expected to occur in the later part of this decade.  The Australian Army says the first of the UH-60Ms will start to arrive this year, which seems unusually fast, but the Blackhawk production line is still cranking them out.


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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.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Hey Kym, the analysis you provide of the paper specifications for the MRH vs Blackhawk may be correct however when it comes to the versatility, agility and reliability of the Blackhawk the MRH is a far distant second. The MRH does its job as a bus but for higher end uses it is impracticle for fast roping, pin point landings (its massive rotar wash destroys light buildings and sends anything not pinned down flying) and the ramp has a 500lb limit until static on the ground excluding fast roping or parachuting. The MRH was forced upon the Australian army from the start…as with the Tiger there will be no tears shed from the operators who work with these airframes on a day to day basis. Good riddance.

    • One could compare the AH60 to the Tiger, and the AH-60 would be in the same bucket, 2nd that is. we never look at emerging Helos only ones we can bitch about because Defence “AGAIN” didnt do their homework. Sound familiar kids?

  2. A glaring fact that remains ignored by this latest procurement travesty is that the Army deployed Chinooks to Australia’s longest ever conflict, not Blackhawks. Germany is replacing its massive fleet of Sikorsky CH-53 Stallions with 60 ‘future proof’ air refuelable Block 2 CH-47F’s Chinooks, Australia would’ve done well to follow suit, considering its size and anticipated future of island hopping operations. Adding 15 – 20 Chinooks to Army’s current fleet of 14, plus a handful of Blackhawks for special forces – liason work would’ve been a more sensible holding pattern while the US Army reshapes the future of air assault with tilt rotor technology/performance.

  3. As an aside and in retrospect Australian Army Aviation maintenance has always been conducted under RAAF policy and procedures. This may be lost in the fact that maintenance documentation is held on a digital platform whereby users do not necessarily read The authority vested in the procedure. Let’s get away from who does it better under the same rules. A Holden ute is better to carry freight than a Ford sedan.

    • Fair point – though that suggestion that maintenance should have been done by the RAAF was made to me by some Army people during a very extensive briefing in 2018 about the ARH. Back then, Army thought that they had turned to corner on availability and that the future of the ARH was very bright. Just goes to show how quickly the story can change, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

  4. Hey Kym,

    There’s actually 4 nations that have decided to discontinue the use of the NH-90. In addition to Australia and Norway, both Belgium and Sweden have announced that they are going to phase out the NH90 in the next 5 years.

  5. Once factor not mentioned in the article is as follows.
    The RNZAF got their NH-90s well after Australia, the first once arriving in December 2011 and was declared operational February 2013.
    By November 2021 the RNZAF had the first NH-90 airframe in the world to reached 2000 flight hours.
    Clearly the RNZAF are flying their small number of airframes at a higher operational tempo than anyone else in the world and clearly aren’t having any problems with them.
    I also understand that the RNZAF NH-90s were also ordered to a similar specification to the Australian ones for logistical purposes.
    Which begs the question, has anyone from the ADF bothered to send teams to Ohakea to try and learn how the RNZAF can get their’s flying and the Australian Army can’t before spending billions of dollars on another platform?
    It’s ridiculous.
    But getting closer to the topic of the article if the NH-90s had to be replaced the UH-60M is the best platform and probably the most cost effective given their would still be institutional knowledge of the platform in the ADF especially as the Navy is still flying the type.
    The other factor is the V-280 is a new and unproven platform that probably won’t come into full maturity until 2040 at which time the UH-60M will have been into service for nearly 20 years and the ADF will no doubt start to seriously look at them then.

    • Thanks for that information. I have the very distinct impression that Army Aviation / CASG take zero interest in what any other country is doing with their helicopters, apart from the USA.

      • As a further aside about New Zealand – remember the Super Seasprite debacle that cost Australian taxpayers $1 billion before being cancelled? NZ bought them for a song, removed the troublesome software and reverted back to the original 3 person crew. Problem fixed! Trouble free operations ever since – and because they carry the Penguin missile the RNZN has a far greater aviation strike capability than the RAN.

        At the time the vitriol directed at the Sea Sprites by the ADF was of the same volume and hostility as that subsequently directed at the ARH and now the MRH.

        • Yeah that is a good point. The Sea sprite issue was quite some time ago now. Wasn’t part of that issue is the Navy never wanted them in the first place. What they really wanted was more Seahawks but were madre to choose between Lynx and SH-2Gs?

          • No, the Super Seasprites were acquired to equip the joint Australian-Malaysian OPV that never went ahead. I’m not making this up, it’s all on the record. When that project was scrapped the helicopter part of it should have been dumped as well – but oh no, RAN/Defence continued on with it anyway.

  6. To be fair, I think if the MRH was able to see out it’s life of type then there is a fair chance the next rotor craft for Army could’ve been the V-280. However, for whatever the real reasons are behind the MRH issues, Army need an operational and available platform now. They can’t wait to until the V-280 is available and who knows if they ever fix their issues with the MRH before the 280 is available.
    I think a full fleet of Chinooks would be overkill for a lot of taskings. While they are great and we could probably take more, they are not always the best platform for every tasking.
    I would be interested in seeing an article/report that compares Australia’s MRH operations etc. against the New Zealanders use of the same platform, or another country that is using it without issue. Not sure if a decent deep dive has been written for public viewing..?

    • I believe NZ are happy with the performance of their MRH fleet. My vague recollection is that they purchased an additional platform and have used it for spares. I don’t know why Australia hasn’t done something similar – as unnecessary as that should be if supply chains are working as they should. Having said that, it would come as no surprise to learn that Army/CASG have never bothered accessing spares from OCCAR as well as from the OEM, Airbus Helicopters. This was the idiotic situation with the Tiger ARH. OCCAR contacted Australia way back in 2007 with an offer of a second source of parts. The last time I checked about a year ago Australia still hadn’t taken up that invitation – which is bizarre. While there is plenty of blame to go around for poor MRH availability, I think Army/CASG are an important contributor to the problem. How on earth is it possible to complain about poor availability without doing something as basic as tapping into the total pool of available spares?

      I take your point about the waiting time for the V-280 But let’s say it would be available for export in 2030. Is it really worth paying $2.8 billion for Blackhawks when a small fraction of that would keep the MRH fleet operating for the next seven years?

      • Yes you are 100% correct. RNZAF got 9 airframes, 8 for operational use and 1 complete airframe to use as a donor.

  7. Kym
    These is an old adage in military aviation. Never buy the A Model of anything or at least do what we did in the past. Our A Model C-130’s were in the last batch made. Our F-35’s were not the first ones made. The MRH90 was unproven when we ordered them. Belgium has canned some, Sweden opted to buy MH-60M’s and our need for interoperability with the US is important in this political climate.

  8. Army needs battlefield helicopter now. Not in 10 years when V280 is in full rate production and over its initial technical hurdles. Blackhawk remains the only helicopter designed for air assault. The eurocopter is a civilian aircraft that has no place in combat

  9. One of the problems most equipment procured for the ADF, is the perception held by many Senior Officers that if it’s not used by the US Defence Force it must be rubbish. The other is the obsessive practice of choosing a design and then trying to change it to suit what you want it to do (often halfway through) or conversely limiting the potential of an asset because it’s not what we asked it to do.

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