One of the worst-kept secrets in the Australian Defence Force – that the Australian Army’s new Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters will be based at Townsville in north Queensland – has been confirmed by Defence.
The 29 Apaches will be operated by Army’s No 1 Aviation Regiment (1Avn) from Townsville from 2025. 1Avn is currently based at Robertson Barracks in Darwin, and operates 22 Airbus Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters (ARH).
A contract for the 29 Apaches was confirmed in March as part of a larger US Army order, at an estimated cost of more than $5 billion. As this is a whole-of-project cost, it likely includes the cost of establishing new facilities and Townsville and decommissioning those at Darwin, although Darwin will probably remain as a staging point for Apache visits to the NT, as well as visiting US Marine Corps and other services’ helicopters.
The move of 1Avn to Townsville became known in defence circles not long after the decision to replace the Tigers with the Apaches was announced back in January 2021, with defence insiders suggesting it wasn’t announced until now due to the likely upheaval of defence families from Darwin that will be required, and the need to start upgrade works at Townsville.
The move will be an incremental one, taking about three years as the facilities at Townsville are constructed or upgraded at an estimated cost of $700 million, and the transition between the two helicopter types is conducted without a dip in capability.
The Apaches will likely move into some facilities currently occupied by the MRH 90 Taipans of A and B Squadrons of 5Avn. The troubled Taipans will start to be replaced in 2024 by new Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawks, the majority of which are expected to be based at Holsworthy in Sydney, with smaller detachments at Townsville and at Oakey near Toowoomba.
The basing of the Black Hawks at Holsworthy will allow Defence to centralise its Army Black Hawk and the Navy’s similar Seahawk sustainment in the Sydney and Nowra region. These two helicopters share similar engines and other dynamic components and have essentially evolved from the same basic design, so can also share logistics and Sikorsky Australia’s skilled maintenance workforce.
Similarly, the basing of the Apaches at Townsville alongside the 16 Boeing CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters operated by the Army will allow Boeing to centralise its logistics and sustainment footprint in a single facility. While the Apache and Chinook don’t share any common parts, the design, sustainment and logistics philosophy of Boeing means a common industry workforce can be used to maintain and support the two types.
“In the past year we have taken a number of difficult and important decisions to improve the Army’s aviation capability,” Defence Minister Richard Marles said in a 3 July release.
“Our significant investment in renovated and new facilities at RAAF Townsville will ensure the ADF members and civilians working with Apache have the infrastructure they need to support these important capabilities.”
Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy added: “The relocation of the 1st Aviation Regiment to Townsville will help Defence sustain the new Apache helicopters more efficiently and effectively, and will mean more highly skilled, secure jobs in Townsville.
“The hubs created as a result of consolidating and re-locating our helicopter capabilities will also generate other opportunities for international partners to operate and be supported in Australia.”