Australia confirmed on January 18 that it would buy 40 Black Hawk military helicopters from the United States for an estimated A$2.8 billion ($1.96 billion), finalizing a sale approved by the Pentagon in August 2022.
The Australian army’s fleet of MRH-90 Taipan helicopters, dogged by maintenance issues for years, will be replaced by Lockheed Martin Corp’s UH-60M Black Hawks.
According to the schedule, the deliveries will start this year. The UH-60M is an upgraded version of the Black Hawk that Canberra had previously used.
UH-60M is the latest variant in the Black Hawk family of helicopters. A multi-mission helicopter created by Sikorsky, the UH-60 Black Hawk has been used by the US Army since 1978.
The UH-60 Black Hawk’s export model is known as the S-70A. More than 2,000 different UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter variants are in use in the US, and more than 600 have been exported.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced in August 2022 that Australia first asked to purchase the helicopters in mid-2022 to replace its multi-role helicopter fleet with a more reliable and proven system.
Major General Jeremy King, the head of the land capability for the army, said, “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.”
He further added, “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.
This acquisition will mean we can continue to defend Australia and respond in times of need safely and effectively for years to come.”
The decision builds upon the announcement made by former Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton in December 2021 that the army would get rid of its entire fleet of problematic Taipan helicopters.
Australia’s decision to purchase a new set of helicopters from a US defense manufacturer comes when it strengthens cooperation with Washington to strengthen deterrence against China.
However, ironically, the US recently announced the replacement of its Black Hawk choppers with the Bell V-280 Valor next-generation assault aircraft.
The Australian decision to replace the MRH-90 helicopters with the Black Hawk could be seen as a second snub to France, which partially owns the consortium that manufactures the Taipan.
Earlier, in September 2021, Australia dumped French submarines and signed the AUKUS agreement with the US and Britain, which led to glaring tensions between the two countries.
However, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles clarified that after numerous conversations with his French counterpart, he was convinced that the US helicopter purchase “won’t interrupt” the two countries’ newly rekindled friendship.
It is pertinent to note that the MRH90 Taipan, employed by both the army and the navy, has garnered a lot of unfavorable publicity over the past few years.
Countries like Sweden and Norway have also gone the Australian way and dumped their choppers of this family owing to years of frustration with the delays, technical issues, and time-consuming maintenance.
Australia’s Long-Drawn Struggle With Taipan Choppers
The MRH-90 Taipan is a twin-engine, advanced medium-lift, multi-role helicopter produced by Australian Aerospace, a subsidiary of Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters).
This helicopter, operated by the Australian navy and army, can carry out many tasks, including troop transport, counterterrorism, search-and-rescue, medical evacuation, and special operations.
Although it is believed to be ahead of the Black Hawk in terms of performance, the fleet of MRH-90 Taipan helicopters, which has been in service with the Australian Army since 2007, is frequently hampered by problems relating to maintenance and a lack of spare parts.
The fleet of 47 helicopters was grounded in 2019 to fix the tail rotor blades. Later, defense authorities acknowledged that if a problem in one of the helicopters that year—which was discovered as it was heading to pick up the head of the Australian defense force had not been corrected, it could have had catastrophic implications.
A year later, in 2020, 27 of the helicopters were grounded following the determination that some cabin sliding door rails were unusable. At the time, the admission by defense officials that the door was too narrow to allow the crew to leave the helicopter safely while it was firing came as an embarrassment for the aircraft manufacturers.
Finally, in 2021, the defense department disclosed that it was paying $37 million to hire private helicopters as it struggled with the limited availability of Taipan helicopters. This came as a breaking point for the country, and it was finally announced at the end of that year that the entire fleet would be replaced.
Soon, Canberra started a hunt for a better helicopter to fill the place, and Black Hawk emerged as a natural choice. The UH-60M is the latest version of the Blackhawk, which first flew in 1974.
Australia flew the earlier generations of the Black Hawk chopper, but it settled for the Taipan as the latter had modern fly-by-wire controls rather than mechanical systems, sophisticated sensors including night vision, and a rear loading ramp that is still unusual for a helicopter in the 10-ton class.
However, the flying and upkeep of this aircraft have proven to be a headache for Canberra.