Airbus Australia Pacific is proposing the Australian Government scrap its replacement Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) competition and instead adopt the company’s unsolicited bid to upgrade the Australian Army’s current Tiger helicopters.
Also included in the bid are seven H145M armed light utility helicopters, which it says, together with a Tiger life-extension and upgrade program, will save the Commonwealth about three billion Australian dollars (US$2.1 billion) between now and 2040. It says the figures are based on the Australian government’s cost projections for a replacement armed reconnaissance helicopter, being calculated under Project Land 4503, estimated to be around four billion Australian dollars (US$2.75 billion) out to 2040.
Airbus will upgrade and support the Tigers through its local facility in Brisbane. The proposed work will include a life-extension program to address obsolescence issues and an incremental capability upgrade that will add new sensors, avionics, and a communications system. The latter will include full integration with the Australian Army’s Elbit Battlefield Management System and Link 16 Tactical Data Link.
The seven H145Ms are in addition to the 16 helicopters Airbus is also proposing for the Australian Army’s Special Forces light support helicopter program, which is being run under Project Land 2097 Phase 4.
U.S. helicopter manufacturers Bell and Boeing are competing with Airbus for the supply of 29 new helicopters, with the former offering 29 AH-64E Apaches, which it says will be the latest U.S. Army production standard helicopter (Version 6), featuring the upgraded Northrop Grumman APG-78 fire control radar with enhanced maritime modes. Boeing Defence Australia (BDA) is offering the Apache under a combined Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) mechanism.
Bell has teamed with BAE Systems Australia, in a partnership first announced at the Singapore Airshow in 2016, to offer its AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter. Under the agreement, BAE Systems Australia will act as the in-country support and training partner for the U.S. manufacturer.
A Request for Information (RFI) was released to industry in July 2019 and the published project timetable calls for a Request For Tender (RFT) in the 2022 timeframe, with a preferred bidder selected in 2023.
Initial Operational Capability (IOC) is expected in 2026 with Final Operational Capability (FOC) following around 2028. However, the Airbus proposal is for the Australian Department of Defence to make an early decision and select the upgraded Tiger/H145M under the Commonwealth Acquisition and Sustainment Group’s "Smart Buyer" methodology.
The Smart Buyer mechanism was introduced in 2016 and enables the Australian Government to make rapid defense acquisition and sustainment decisions where an individual case merits it, rather than running a long and expensive competition.
The Australian Army is closely watching the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) and Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) programs and Land 4503 is seen by many as an interim capability.
“To replace an armed reconnaissance capability right now and to spend three billion dollars more to buy a helicopter that will offer the same capability as Tiger, I think would be a waste of taxpayers' money,” explains Airbus Australia Pacific managing director Andrew Mathewson.
“Our objective is to exercise the Commonwealth’s Smart Buyer provisions, bring the decision forward, and perform modest, low-risk and relatively inexpensive life extensions to Tiger to take it out to 2040. We feel that by taking Tiger out to 2040 with these upgrades, we can actually bridge—in a low-risk and credible way—the gap until FARA could reasonably be expected to be delivered.”
Australia acquired the Tiger ARH under its previous Air 87 project, and the first units were delivered in December 2004. All 22 helicopters remain in service and today serve with two reconnaissance squadrons with the 1st Aviation Regiment in Darwin. A small number are also used by the Army Aviation Training Centre (AAvnTC) at Oakey in Queensland.
The Tiger has had a poor reputation since entering service, has been criticized for being technically immature when purchased, and has suffered from high cost of ownership and poor availability rates. The helicopter was singled out for criticism in the 2016 Defence White Paper, and in the same year, it was the subject of an unfavorable Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) report.
Following a great deal of remedial work across CASG, the Australian Army and industry, the helicopter is now performing well and is highly regarded. Recent figures suggest a 92% successful mission completion rate, with cost per flight hour reduced by 30 percent since 2014.
“Tiger today is not the same platform reflected in the 2016 White Paper. It is performing very well, our customer loves it, and we think it matches the RFI very closely,” Mathewson says. “The Commonwealth is seeking a mature, proven, armed reconnaissance helicopter and that’s exactly what they have with Tiger.”