7 November 2023

US to accelerate delivery of new Black Hawk helicopters to Australia

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Black Hawk helicopters

Two of the Australian Army’s first three UH-60M Black Hawks being unloaded from a US C-17 transport at RAAF Base Richmond in late July. Photo: ADF.

Following the grounding and subsequent withdrawal from service of the Australian Army’s fleet of MRH 90 Taipan utility helicopters, the US has agreed to accelerate the delivery of the replacement Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters.

During a visit to Washington DC last week, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles met with his US equivalents and it was agreed the US Army would relinquish its own delivery slots in favour of fulfilling Australia’s order for 40 Black Hawks faster.

The Army’s first three UH-60Ms were delivered to the Holsworthy-based No 6 Aviation Regiment in late July, just a few days after the tragic crash of an MRH 90 with the loss of its four crewmen during the multi-national Exercise Talisman Sabre.

Following the crash, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) grounded its remaining MRH 90s while investigations were conducted. But with those investigations expected to take up to a year to complete, it was announced in September that the MRH 90s would be withdrawn from service permanently.

READ ALSO First new Black Hawk helicopters delivered as MRH-90 crash investigation continues

The previous government announced in December 2021 the Army’s 40 MRH 90s would be retired by the end of 2024, more than a decade earlier than expected due to ongoing poor availability and configuration management issues, and said 40 Black Hawks would replace them under Project LAND 4507 Phase 1.

Booked through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales apparatus, Australia’s order was reportedly part of a larger US Army order that included unnamed “foreign military sales customers” for more than 120 machines placed in June 2022, and the US State Department formally approved the sale in August 2022.

Most military equipment acquired from the US is bought through the foreign military sales (FMS) process, with the parent service – in this case the US Army – 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. In this case, it has allowed Australia’s Black Hawks to be pulled from the US production line.

Black Hawk helicopter

A new UH-60M Black Hawk being prepared for flight at RAAF Base Richmond after delivery. Photo: ADF.

The Albanese government ratified the order in January 2023 and said the first machines would be delivered this year. The majority of the fleet will be based at Holsworthy near Sydney, with a training and test and evaluation element located at Oakey near Toowoomba in Queensland.

“We’re accelerating the delivery of Black Hawk helicopters that you ordered earlier this year,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd J Austin III said in a joint statement with Mr Marles on 31 October.

“The first arrived in Australia just a few months ago and more are on the way and coming even faster.”

Mr Marles said Australia is “enormously grateful” for the expedited delivery of the Black Hawks.

“This is something that we really appreciate, and is, again, an example of America standing up in a moment when we really need it,” he said.

READ ALSO Australian Army MRH 90 Taipan helicopters to be immediately withdrawn from service

There were no details provided as to how much faster the deliveries would be, nor when the Australian Army could expect to declare an initial operational capability (IOC) with the new Black Hawks.

With more aircraft coming sooner, the limiting factor for Australia will be just how fast the Army can safely absorb the new helicopters into not just its operational units, but also its training and sustainment systems. While most MRH 90 pilots can be qualified to safely fly a Black Hawk relatively quickly, being able to operate one effectively in an operational scenario is quite different and takes dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of practice.

An initial cadre of Australian pilots are learning to fly the Black Hawk with the US Army’s school at Fort Novosel (Fort Rucker) in Alabama. But until a flight simulator and maintenance ground trainers are delivered to Australia, the training burden will need to be carefully managed across the limited number of real aircraft in the fleet.

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