Airbus Helicopters is proposing a program to update the Australian Army’s fleet of EC665 Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters (ARH). The proposal was announced on August 30, the closing day for responses to a July 1 Request for Information by the Commonwealth of Australia for Project Land 4503.
This project seeks a replacement for the 22 Tigers currently serving with the 1st Aviation Regiment at Robertson Barracks, Darwin, Northern Territory. The RFI specifies a total of 29 aircraft: 24 to be operated at a single base (presumably Darwin) and five for training. A single squadron of 12 helicopters is required to be operational by 2026, with initial operating capability being defined by the ability to operationally deploy four helicopters, with a second squadron in service by 2028.
Australia received 22 Tiger ARHs between 2004 and 2010 to answer its Project Air 87 requirement, with 18 of them being assembled at Airbus’s Brisbane plant. The introduction to service was far from smooth, with various issues, including three cockpit fume events. It was not until April 2016 that the fleet achieved full operating capability, nine years later than initially planned. The 2016 Defence White Paper noted a number of negatives, such as high engine maintenance costs and the time required to ship parts to Europe for repair.
However, over time, the fleet has matured, with operating costs having reduced by 30 percent and with sortie-completion rates currently being posted at more than 95 percent. The Australian fleet has flown more than 30,000 hours.
“Since delivery, the Australian Tiger has matured into a fully operational army capability, and is integrated into the combined arms team,” said Andrew Mathewson, Airbus Australia Pacific managing director. “It continues to prove itself as an adaptable platform, and is now a key element of Australia’s amphibious capabilities on-board the Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Docks.”
Airbus has not specified what elements would be applied in its upgrade proposal but noted that the work would be performed at the Brisbane plant. Airbus has applied some upgrades to the French Tiger fleet and is currently developing an OCCAR-led Mk III upgrade for the helicopters of France, Germany, and Spain, now slated for fielding in the mid-2020s. Australia opted to remain as an observer rather than join the program.
The Land 4503 requirement favors procurement of an off-the-shelf type such as the Boeing AH-64E and Bell AH-1Z, while the increased quantity would seemingly rule out upgrading the Tigers. However, Airbus believes that applying upgrades to the current fleet would save the Commonwealth AUD3 billion, as well as prolong a significant contribution to Australia’s aerospace industry, with over 260 staff currently involved in Tiger sustainment activities. Extending the Tiger's life to fly until around 2040 would also result in a timescale under which Australia could consider a next-generation type, such as those currently under development for the U.S. Army’s FARA requirement.