Published in July/Augst 2020 Issue – The Australian Defence Force is closing in on a decision on whether it will keep faith with its Airbus Tigers, or risk going for a new type of attack helicopter over a relatively short life-cycle.
The Australian Defence White Paper in 2016 provided a recommendation that the Australian Army’s Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) Tiger fleet have a limited sustainment while the Australian Defence Force (ADF) launched a Request for Information (RfI) that would seek a potential replacement. This was called LAND 4503.
This RfI is due to close on 22 July 2020 with three contenders having been identified. The task before the Helicopter Systems Division (HSD) of Defence’s Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG) is to recommend one of three options:
- Keep the Tiger fleet with upgrades suggested by Airbus.
- Acquire a new attack helicopter fleet from Bell, the AH-1Z Viper
- Acquire a new attack helicopter fleet from Boeing, the Apache AH-64E.
In late 2004, the Australian Army received the first of 22 Tigers. However, figures released by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) revealed that Tiger was late in meeting its original final operating capability (FOC) deadline by nearly seven years, from 2009 to April 2016.
The current RfI is seeking 29 attack helicopters and, following the painful experience of bringing Tiger into full service, has set the initial operational capability (IOC) for the first squadron of 12 aircraft in 2026, followed by a full operational capability (FOC) in 2028.
While there is no room to provide a full discussion of the capabilities of the three options, Airbus was keen to mount a defence of why its Tiger should be retained.
Keeping the Tiger
Andrew Mathewson, managing director and Head of Country at Airbus Australia Pacific, naturally argues in favour of keeping the Tiger. “The 2016 Defence White Paper is some time ago now, but in 2016 the government announced that Tiger would be replaced. Since then a lot of work has been done by industry and defence to make Tiger work as best that it possibly can.”
While the Tiger was beset with supply and integration difficulties as it slowly worked up to passing its FOC, Mathewson says that the company has now turned the corner in overcoming previous difficulties: “Airbus has improved the supply chain to the extent that 93 percent of planned missions succeed [it was 65 percent in 2019]…and the end user is now happy with the Tiger’s capability.” He added that its reliability is now comparable to any of its competitors.
The Airbus proposal’s main line of attack is that, now that the Tiger is operating to the Australian Army’s satisfaction, the cost to extend its operation life out to when the Australian government believes that it will acquire its next generation helicopter, around 2040, can be halved compared to buying a brand new type and establishing expensive through life costs for what is likely to be less than 20 years.
“We are pleased to say that we can save the Government more than $2.1 billion (AUS$3 billion) by retaining Tiger in service and extending its life out to 2040…Our proposal to government is to bring the decision forward, keep Tiger in service and integrate it with the next generation of Future Vertical Lift when it comes,” states Mathewson.
Addressing the question about how Airbus would work to integrate and network Tiger into what is largely becoming an ADF air fleet based on US manufacturers technology – Lockheed Martin’s F-35A Lightning IIs, Northrop Graumman’s MQ-4C Tritons, General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers, Boeing’s P-8A Poseidons and potentially the unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), Loyal Wingman, Mathewson said that Airbus did have a solution.
“When Tiger was introduced none of the datalink systems were profoundly present, and now they are more effective and Tiger has to adapt to that,’ he said. “The Australian Army operates off a bespoke [Elbit’s] Battle Management System (BMS); we have already put in a system that talks to the BMS, but [going forward] we will incorporate Link 16 into the aircraft so that there will be no issues from a data or communications perspective.” This is not necessarily part of the Mk3 upgrade that would apply to the other three nations operating the Tiger.
The Australian government has become ‘risk averse’ in wanting an attack helicopter that does not need further lengthy development or insertion of unproven technology. In addition to the problems associated with Tiger, its negative experience and eventual cancellation of the RAN’s Kaman SH-2G (A) Super Seasprite programme in favour of Sikorsky’s MH-60R in 2008 is an indicator that the ADF wants to use tried and tested aircraft that have a good user community base.
Talking of the upgrade plan that Airbus was submitting to the government for consideration, Mathewson said that the company it would “incorporate all low risk modifications that are easy to implement and that are conducted here in Australia. The thing that didn’t exist all those years ago and now exists is an understanding of the technologies around Tiger and other systems within Airbus Australia.”
“Today we are developing software in Australia, for Australia on our own rigs. When the Commonwealth bought the Tiger it also bought a software support capability so that software can be developed in Australia. We have an agreement with Europe to sell software updates back into Europe on Tiger and NH-90.”
This would not necessarily be the case if the ADF was to acquire a new and established attack helicopter such as the Bell AH-1Z Viper or the Apache AH-64E Guardian. To stay with Block upgrades as they are issued by Boeing for the US Army’s fleet of nearly 800 Apaches, particularly software upgrades, the acquisition would leave little room to manoeuvre to terms of how the aircraft was set up.
“Even if the Land 4503 goes exceptionally well and they meet the planned full operational capability in 2028, you are going to start withdrawing aircraft in 10-12 years [to make way for the next generation rotorcraft],” states Mathewson. “So you have an investment of up to $3.5 billion (AUS$5 billion) and [quite quickly] that bridging capability would begin to be withdrawn.”
Mathewson added that when the 2016 White Paper highlighted 76 capability deficiencies, the majority of those were from the mid-life upgrade programme, such as the ability to operate in a manned-unmanned teaming arrangement. “They weren’t deficiencies against the Tiger contract but were against the future requirement for Tiger. For the Chinook capability there is a similar list of deficiencies, also for the Seahawk Romeo, but the ANAO did not make a same level of comment on those upgrade deficiencies, just Tiger.”
Mathewson said that Airbus and the Army had overcome many of the challenges that were initially levelled at the platform. Accused of Tiger incurring high operating costs and cost of ownership, he said that many factors were included in the overall cost, including through life support, upgrades and dealing with obsolescence, maintenance and aircrew training, and people embedded in Airbus. The actual cost of the aircraft operation is just over $6,000 (AUS$9,000) per hour which is a valid comparative figure.” He added that when compared with another aircraft, such as Boeing’s Chinook, most of the training was conducted overseas. “We want people to compare like-for-like in their analysis,” he said.
The Army needs to deploy its attack helicopter onto Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warships, and rivals are keen to point out that Tiger is relatively deficient in this capability. In answer to this charge, Mathewson said that by March “the first of class flight trials have been completed and the Tiger can operate off the Landing Helicopter Docks.” He added that as the Tiger is a composite structure, it doesn’t require the same level of maintenance as all metal aircraft.
Airbus has offered an additional seven H145Ms to the ADF to make up the numbers in the LAND 4503 to the stipulated 29 rotorcraft. Mathewson says that these can “deliver a greater capability in Darwin where there are no support aircraft.” This would be an integrated logistical capability. Buying an extra seven Tigers to make up the whole fleet to 29 attack helicopters would not be cost effective as the original production line has closed.
Additional helicopters are required by the ADF for its Special Forces Land 2097 programme, where 21 helicopters have been specified. Mathewson believes that by offering seven H145Ms (the same type if will offer for the Land 2097 programme), this would offer the ADF an opportunity to further standardise its rotorcraft fleets.
So in summary Airbus proposes to upgrade the existing 22 Army Aviation Tigers, deliver seven H145Ms, and in doing so save up to $2.4 billion (AUD$3.5 billion).
Buying the Viper
Bell is ready to supply the Australian Army with its AH-1Z Viper. Javier Ball, Bell’s military sales manager responsible for LAND4503 and in a previous role was the senior US liaison officer to the ADF. He was focused on setting up US force posture and enhanced aircraft cooperation initiative between the RAAF, the USAF and other aviation assets.
“I have watched the Australian amphibious capability grow from nascent beginnings to the end of Pacific-Endeavours exercises,” said Ball. Through that experience, he said he had gained a good insight into Australian defence requirements.
In pressing the case for Bell’s AH-1Z he submitted: “The Zulu offers a completely encapsulated programme that reduces risk but provides options to government and the only offering that is specifically built to operate in an expeditionary environment and off operate off a ship without any degradation of capability.”
Ball points to the Land 4503 RfI and highlights what he sees is a need for marinised capabilities. To achieve this he states that “the Zulu is the only offering that can be delivered without any modifications or upgrades that can operate off a ship, has the lowest acquisition cost, greatest capability set and lowest total life cycle cost” (referring to a Royal United Services Institute document, written by Scott Lovell called Australian Defence Capability Analysis Project LAND 4503 – ARH Replacement Program. Some of the comparisons made within this report are however disputed by Airbus’ Mathewson).
“When you put a non-marinised helicopter onboard ship and the blades don’t fold when you require fresh water washing because it is not marinised, all the ordinance is usually different too – US Army US ordinance is different from US Navy ordinance which effects how you store it and move it around the ship,” said Ball.
Other aspects that make the Zulu an appropriate buy, stated Ball, is that it was designed for safe overwater flight and, should the need occur, to survive a water impact landing and has “multiple redundant systems so if you do lose an engine you can still get back to the ship.”
Bell’s proposal is the basic configuration that the USMC gets, but it is up to what the government stipulates so there is flexibility. Bell would offer either a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) or a hybrid FMS/ direct sale (DCS). “This is why we talking to BAE Systems Australia who can provide all the in-country maintenance, overhaul and sustainment.” Bell is conscious of the industrial side and particularly offering jobs and third party supply relationships under the BAE umbrella.
Rowan Tink, business development manager at BAE Systems Australia said: “We are aiming to establish a balance between FMS and DCS and we are now in the process of discussions between the Australian and US governments regarding an offset programme, looking to maximise Australia industry content in our solution.” He added that BAE was certified for all aero modifications which could be carried out in Australia. All maintenance, he said, would be at the operational location of the squadron including deep maintenance. However, the Viper is a new helicopter with USMC not yet requiring that level of deeper maintenance and AH-1Zs are still rolling off the production line.
Ball made the point that the USMC’s Vipers are already qualified to operate off the RAN’s LHD’s so the transition would be nearly seamless if they were also acquired by the ADF.
In terms of training the pilots, Tink said that BAE in Australia had an extensive experience for training, not only aircrew – over 430 pilots – but also maintainers and sustainers. The customer could decide how much training, and where, was required.
In terms of delivery, Ball said the first aircraft to achieve IOC should occur around 2025 with FOC by 2028, but he revealed that Bell could deliver IOC in 2024 and could achieve FOC in 2025.
In terms of Manned/Unmanned teaming with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) the USMC is at Level II, but the offer would be Level III although there has been no specific request for this.
Tink concluded that “Viper is the only rotary wing aircraft that integrates air defence into the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS), Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD) and F-35 for identification, detection and duel-node.” It also integrates with the RAAF’s E7 Wedgetail, he added.
Buying the Apache
The Boeing Apache AH-64E Guardian is the third option, and a very well known and mature alternative. Acquiring the Apache would tie Army Aviation into the US Army’s Block upgrade sustainment programme with Boeing.
The US Army is looking to operate its newer Apaches through to the 2060s, due to the time needed to replace the 791 of them in Army Aviation with whichever aircraft was selected through the FARA programme. Boeing is currently delivering the AH-64E V6 upgrade which has further software updates. These updates will continue through to at least 2040, if not beyond.
TJ Jamison, director, Vertical Lift International Sales at Boeing, said that the ADF’s selection of Apache could be cost effective if they tied in with the US Army’s multi-year acquisition strategy.
Boeing’s global supply chain network may well see airframes being delivered to Australia from existing production facilities such as that in South Korea with completion being completed locally in Australia.
The Apache’s obvious strengths are its well proven fire control radar, with the V6 upgrade extending its range from 8km to 16km, allowing it to coordinate attacks particularly during deep reconnaissance missions and working with UAVs. Its MUM-T capability also means that live video feed can be share with others in a Joint Fires Network through Link 16.
In the maritime domain, the V6 upgrade to the fire control radar allows it to take into account sea states during the detection and classification of vessels, including smaller, lighter craft. Jamison said that the radar can classify 260 potential targets and prioritise ten.
At time of writing, Australia has not been as economically damaged as many other countries, particularly those in Europe and the United States. Defence budgets are one of the first areas that governments look at to save money.
If the Australian government does require cost savings then replacing the Tiger might become a lower priority. The ADF, mindful of China’s expansionist foreign policy, might continue to invest in the extension of its Intelligence, Surveillance and Recconnaissance (ISR) capabilities while continuing the expensive purchase of its Lockheed Martin F-35 fleet and maintaining the transformation of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), particularly the replacement of the Collins-class submarines.
By investing now in either the Bell or Boeing attack helicopters, the ADF may be setting the foundation through potential compatibilities with its next generation rotorcraft, as both of the US manufacturers are deeply committed to the US Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) and Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) development programmes. Both the Bell AH-1Z Viper and the AH-64E and due to remain in service for decades to come with both the US Army and the USMC, reducing risk in terms of costs and future proofing.