The Albanese Government has confirmed the previous government’s announcement that the Australia Army will acquire 40 Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk utility helicopters to replace its troubled Airbus MRH 90 Taipan fleet.
The 18 January announcement comes after official notification in August 2022 from the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) confirmed the US State Department had approved the Black Hawk sale. Then valued at US$1.9bn (A$2.72bn), the DSCA notification said 40 Black Hawks, eight spare GE T700 engines, and an array of communications, self-protection, navigation, and ground support equipment would be acquired.
The 18 January announcement said the Black Hawks would enter service from this year and would be based at Oakey near Toowoomba in Queensland, and at Holsworthy in Sydney. This suggests that Townsville, where the majority of the MRH 90 fleet is currently based may not host any Black Hawks, although Defence sources have suggested the new AH-64E Apache Guardian armed reconnaissance helicopters due to enter service from 2025 may be based at Townsville. The timing of the announcement is also curious, coming just two months before the final report of the wide-ranging Defence Strategic Review being conducted by former Defence Minister Stephen Smith and former Chief of Defence ACM Sir Angus Houston is due to be handed down.
The announcement also said the first Black Hawks would enter service this year, an acceleration of the project over the previous government’s projected timeline of 2024/25. While no formal contract notification has been posted in US Department of Defense publications, some or all of the aircraft may be drawn from a larger contract for 120 Black Hawks for the US Army and unnamed “foreign military sales customers” that was signed in June 2022.
Most military equipment acquired from the US is bought through a foreign military sales (FMS) process, with the parent service – either the US Army, Navy, or Air Force – being the contracting authority which orders the equipment from the manufacturers. While this can be a complicated process, it often ensures customer equipment is configured the same as that of the US parent service, and can be locked into a much greater pool of spares and support services.
“The Black Hawk capability will be a crucial element for us to protect Australia’s sovereignty, and deliver foreign policy objectives, including providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” the Australian Army’s Head of Land Capability, Major General Jeremy King said in an 18 January release. “The Black Hawk will support the deployment of our troops and their equipment where they are needed in times of crisis.
“The Black Hawk is a reliable, proven and mature platform supported by a robust global supply chain,” he added. “This acquisition will mean we can continue to defend Australia and respond in times of need in a safe and effective way for years to come.”
The Black Hawks will replace the French-designed MRH 90 Taipan in service under Project LAND 4507 Phase 1, despite the Taipan originally being selected ahead of the UH-60M back in 2004 under the previous Project AIR 9000 Phases 2/4/6. The Taipan was not expected to be retired until the early-to-mid 2030s, but, despite promising better performance, capacity, and range than the Black Hawks, the aircraft has continually experienced poor availability in army service, and the fleet has been grounded a number of times due to maintenance, airworthiness, and configuration management issues.
The Taipan has also been proven to be unsuitable for the special operations support role, with difficulties with the door gun placement, rear loading ramp, rappelling ropes, and cargo hook all seemingly unable to be overcome.
In an 18 January interview on ABC Radio National, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles said, “It’s a decision that we’ve spent some time in taking. It’s obviously a decision that we’ve spoken a lot with France about.
“The reason we’ve decided to go with the Black Hawks and to transition away from the Taipans is because really, over the course of the last decade, we’ve struggled in terms of getting the hours out of the Taipans that we would want, both with maintenance and having spare parts available,” he said. “We’re confident that the Black Hawks are a platform that we’re familiar with. We have a really good proven track record in terms of their reliability and getting hours out of them.
“I’ve spoken with my counterpart, Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu on a number of occasions in relation to this. They’re aware of the thinking that we’ve had about it, the process that we’ve gone through. We’ve worked closely with them in relation to it.”
The Black Hawks will likely be supported in Australian service by Sikorsky Australia, a subsidiary of US defence giant Lockheed Martin, from its Nowra facility. The Royal Australian Navy operates 23 MH-60R Romeo Seahawk helicopters at Nowra and has a further 13 on order. The Seahawk is a navalised derivative of the Black Hawk, and the two types share many common dynamic, structural, and electronic components.