Tiger, Tiger, not so bright
25 Feb 2016|

A Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter prepares to depart RAAF Learmonth to conduct security operations during an Exercise Northern Shield scenario. *** Local Caption *** Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters (ARH) have arrived in Exmouth, Western Australia on Exercise Northern Shield to assist the Ready Combat Team (RCT) conduct security operations in the region. The Tigers, operated by the Darwin based 1st Aviation Regiment, deployed at short notice to respond to a simulated enemy threat. Exercise Northern Shield involves over 1000 troops from the Army and Air Force. It is occurring in North West Australia from the 19th – 24th of September.There was a new acquisition project that was given a lot less prominence than the big ticket naval items in today’s White Paper launch. In the paper’s paragraph 4.56, we find this:

‘The Government will replace the 22 Tiger Armed Reconnaissance helicopters with a new armed reconnaissance capability from the mid-2020s.’

It’s certainly to the point, but a more accurate—if slightly wordier—way of putting it would be this:

After almost a decade of effort and a $2.03 billion project budget, the Government has decided to give up trying to integrate the Tiger helicopter into Army’s emerging C4ISR architecture, let alone the wider ADF. We’ll try something else instead. (Now, where’s the FMS catalogue?)

I have to give the Turnbull Government credit for taking an overdue step. It takes some courage to cut the losses and move on, but I think that’s precisely what was required here. And this problem was hardly of the current government’s making. Today’s announcement is actually a sorry ending to a long and troublesome project that was the subject of the ANAO’s attention a full decade ago. Back then the Auditors made this observation:

Defence had intended that the ARH aircraft was to have been an ‘off-the-shelf’ delivery of proven, operational technology, lowering the risk of schedule, cost and performance shortfalls. The ARH acquisition transitioned to become a more developmental program for the ADF, which has resulted in heightened exposure to schedule, cost and capability risks…

Ten years on—a decade that saw Army’s deployed personnel in Afghanistan rely on armed reconnaissance support from other nations—it seems that it all got too hard. Defence admits as much in today’s Integrated Investment Plan (IIP), admitting that ‘the Tiger has had a troubled history’ and it seems that from here on the platform will only receive ‘essential upgrades’ to keep it flying until a replacement (which could be manned, unmanned  or a combination of the two) is acquired. So we can file this one under ‘poor return on taxpayer’s investment’ beside the Super Seasprite, although at least we got some exercise effort out of these and they were once deemed fit for a Prince (video).

Rather than closing on a sour note, let me observe that there were a few reasons for optimism in today’s White Paper launch for followers of the not always happy story of Army aviation. Another long term problem child in the form of the MRH-90 battlefield helicopter seems to be slowly gaining some ground in terms of capability delivery. The accompanying IIP mentions ongoing work to use the helicopter in Special Forces counter-terrorism work. Given the Special Force’s previously reported antipathy towards the type, that’s a positive (and it accords with anecdotal reports we’re hearing that the Army is starting to become much more comfortable with the MRH-90).

And there’s even a new type of helicopter altogether about to join the ADF’s inventory:

A new capability for the ADF will be introduced with the acquisition of dedicated light helicopters to support Special Forces operations. These light helicopters can be rapidly deployed in C-17s, and can insert, extract and provide fire support for small teams of Special Forces undertaking tasks ranging from tactical observation through to counter-terrorism missions, or hostage recovery.

Extra air mobility for Special Forces is a sensible step—in a counter-terrorism mission, speed and access can be crucial. (Just don’t anyone mention the apparently long dead and buried ADF Helicopter Strategic Master Plan, which set out to reduce the number of types in the ADF inventory to just four…)

Finally, another three CH-47F Chinooks will join Army’s fleet, building on an already successful acquisition and adding additional medium lift.