Australian Army Looks to UH-60M Black Hawk Helicopters

 - December 10, 2021, 6:18 AM
Despite offering payload and performance advantages over the Black Hawk, the MRH90 has suffered from availability and maintenance cost issues in Australian service. (Photo: Australian Department of Defence)

The Australian Army is seeking information from the U.S. government on the procurement of up to 40 Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk utility transport helicopters. If the plan, which Australia's defense minister Peter Dutton announced on December 10, is approved, the arrival of the new helicopters will accelerate the retirement of the troubled NH Industries MRH90 Taipan fleet, which was originally due to leave service in 2037. That date is likely to be brought forward by 10 years.

According to the Department of Defence, the MRH90 has not met contracted availability requirements nor the expected cost of ownership ahead of its planned withdrawal from service. “The performance of the MRH90 Taipan has been an ongoing and well-documented concern and there has been a significant effort at great expense to try to remediate those issues,” said Dutton. “It is critically important there is a safe, reliable and capable utility helicopter available for our service men and women into the future, with reasonable and predictable operating costs.”

Australia acquired 47 MRH90 rotorcraft, of which four were built in Europe with the remainder being assembled by Australian Aerospace in Brisbane, Queensland. Intended to replace the Army’s S-70A-9 Black Hawk and Royal Australian Navy’s Westland Sea Kings, the first entered army service in 2008, with the last being delivered in 2017. The type has suffered from availability and spares management issues, and earlier this year was the subject of a fleetwide grounding. Leonardo AW139s have been temporarily leased for training and non-combat duties.

Six of the MRH90s are flown by the RAN, but they have also suffered from availability issues. In October the navy was cleared by the U.S. State Department to acquire 12 Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawks to replace them, joining the 24 “Romeos” already in RAN service

On the same day as the announcement, the army retired the Sikorsky S-70A-9 in a ceremony at Holsworthy Barracks in Sydney, New South Wales, where the last few served on special operations counter-terrorism duties with 6 AVN. The first-generation Black Hawk—similar to the U.S. Army’s UH-60A—was ordered by the Royal Australian Air Force in 1986, shortly before the RAAF’s rotary-wing assets were handed over to the army. The first was supplied from the U.S. and the remaining 38 were assembled by Hawker de Havilland at Bankstown, NSW. The type flew over 200,000 hours in the course of its 33 years of service with the Australian Army. Its out-of-service date was extended by at least a year due to the difficulties being experienced by its MRH90 successor.

Shortly before these events, Australia’s army aviation was reorganized into a new, stand-alone Aviation Command, having previously been administered by Army Forces Command. A ceremony was held in Canberra on December 2, including a flypast by both S-70A-9 and MRH90 Taipan helicopters.