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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Advance Australia, But Delays Damage Progress   

Australia’s 16 Army Aviation Brigade Deputy Commander, Col. Andrew MacNab, talks exclusively to Rotor & Wing about the route that still lay ahead in order to get new rotary capabilities onto the flight line.

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

In 2003 the Australian Government published its Defense Aerospace Sector Strategic Plan. Its aim was to build a defense industrial base that could sustain and support a technologically advanced Australian Defense Force (ADF).

In terms of military rotorcraft, the commanders of 16 Army Aviation Brigade (AAAv) are working to a timetable that should deliver that capability ready across the board for frontline service by 2015. This will comprise attack helicopters (ARH Tiger), heavy lift (CH-47F), troop transport (MRH-90), with perhaps the only exception being the replacement of the Kiowa and Squirrel training aircraft with a new single platform.

Project AIR 87 is the contract between the Australian Defense Materiel Organization (DMO) and Australian Aerospace for the acquisition of 22 Eurocopter Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters. According to the DMO’s website, the package comprises: “a training system consisting of a full flight and mission simulator (FFMS); two cockpit procedures trainers (CPTs); and ground crew training devices, other supporting components including the ARH software support capability (ASSC), a ground mission management system to support operational communications, electronic warfare mission support system, a maintenance management system, facilities and ammunition.”

AIR 9000 Phase 2 is the multi-role program to acquire the Eurocopter MRH-90 to replace the Army’s Black Hawks and the Navy’s Sea Kings. Again the contract is through Australian Aerospace and is for 46 aircraft, which is currently likely to be split into 40 for the Army and six for the Navy. Again, according to the DMO the package includes: the MRH software support center*, a ground mission management system*, an electronic warfare self-protection support system*, the MRH instrumentation system, full flight and mission simulators, other training devices such as aircraft maintenance trainers, aircraft systems trainers, part task trainers, bundled with data, spares, support and test equipment and a 10-year sustainment program (*these systems are aligned with the ARH program).

In March this year Greg Combet, Australia’s Minister for Defense Personnel, Materiel and Science announced a contract with the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command (through the Foreign Military Sales program) that allows DMO to acquire seven new CH-47F Chinook helicopters in a package that also included a couple of simulators and spare parts. The value of the contract is AUD $513.5 million (about U.S. $470 million).

These aircraft will be a direct replacement for the six existing CH-47D Chinooks operated by C Squadron of the 5th Aviation Regiment based in Townsville. The first two CH-47Fs are planned to enter service in 2014, with all seven in service by 2017. They will be in U.S. Army configuration but are likely to feature Australian mission modifications, including crashworthy crew and passenger seating, miniguns, and underfloor ballistic protection.

Interview with Colonel Andrew MacNab,

Deputy Commander, 16 Aviation Brigade, Australian Army:

Andrew Drwiega, Rotor & Wing (R&W): It has taken a long time to bring the Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) into service. Where are you now following the ‘stop payments’ delay in 2008?

Andrew MacNab (AM): We are progressing towards all the remaining milestones. We are expecting to have a deployable squadron around the middle of next year [summer 2011]. Obviously we are not going to have full capability as that is: day/night; amphibious operations. Part of the reason is that it is tied into JP2048 which is the program to replace two amphibious landing ships with Navantia Canberra class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs). In March this year we met a capability milestone—Operational Capability 1. This represented an ARH troop (two aircraft plus a spare for maintenance). Building up to the next IOC in 2011 which will see a squadron of six aircraft online—three troops of two aircraft. The aircraft is great. We have had some problems and there are still a number of challenges that we are working through. The DMO has been great, industry has been pretty good and once this aircraft reaches its capability it is going to be phenomenal.

R&W: Can you discuss some of the challenges?

AM: We are still working on the IFR certification. Obviously things have come a long way—we have CNS/ATM [International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) communication, navigation, surveillance and air traffic management standards. That compliance is required in order to fly in civil airspace without a waiver]. We have got to make sure that we in defense use civil regulations as the basis for where we are going. We have got to assess those regulations and work out where the waivers are and where we are progressing with the IFR certification. We have got a special airworthiness board coming up later this year—I think August—and we are expecting to have our IFR certification at that stage which will be another leap forward for us. We will then become all weather.

R&W: I also thought there was a problem on missile integration?

AM: Our crews are regularly firing Hellfire missiles now. The most inaccurate shot we have had to date is 33 cms out to all ranges. So it is going pretty well. Our rockets [2.75 mm] are about to be certified and the guns have also been fired.

R&W: Is Darwin the right place to base this technologically complex aircraft?

AM: In relation to placing the aircraft in Darwin, the 1st Aviation Regiment is actually integrating with 1 Light Armored Brigade. Clearly we are part of the combined arms team and 1 Brigade is armored/mechanized, so the Tiger’s reconnaissance element fits in very well. When we do deploy as a combat team it is as part of a battlegroup. We don’t know what our mission will be in five years’ time—Afghanistan, East Timor, Bourgainville. So whatever force that is required would comprise a battlegroup headquarters, an ARH squadron and some air mobility to deliver a balanced force structure—and this ARH force element would be scalable between troops and full squadrons. Each aircraft in 16 Brigade has different strengths, payloads, vulnerabilities—so this force packaging/combat teaming/battlegrouping—will depend on the environment and we will scale our force to meet the challenge. But there is nothing new here—the addition is the ARH. That is coming online now and that firepower is being realized.

R&W: How is the MRH-90 program progressing?

An Australian Army CH-47D during a tasking movement in RC South, Afghanistan.The old and the new: a CH-47D Chinook, an S-70A Black Hawk and the Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH).
AM: The MRH-90 is about to get its first maritime milestone—an aircraft afloat, but I am sure you are aware of the engine failure [this happened in April near Adelaide and the ADF grounded all 11 aircraft it has so far received]. We are awaiting the outcome of that problem, then we will get back to flying and check where the new milestones will be. Turbomeca/Rolls Royce personnel are supporting us. We want to know the cause of the failure—is it a common problem or a one-off? Once we have identified the cause we will get back to flying as soon as we can. It is challenging and frustrating but we believe that we will find the solution and then get the project back on track.

We now don’t have the Hueys—they were retired around 2005—but we still have the two squadrons of Black Hawks. In terms of the front line we are no worse off than we were four or five years ago if the MRH-90 program is delayed [as the Hueys would not have been considered for operational use in Afghanistan]. In terms of light utility support—flood relief in Australia and so on—perhaps we are a bit light. But the first batch of MRH-90s were to provide an additional troop lift capability. So we haven’t lost anything, it is just that we still haven’t realized the growth that we were expecting to get by now.

Another thing to bear in mind is that by 2015, we will have probably the most modern fleet of operational helicopters in the world. They will all be less than ten years old—the CH-47Fs (paying off the last of the D models); MRH-90 fly-by-wire technology; ARH, again state-of-the art. So by that date we will have one of the most capable, albeit small, fleets of aircraft in the world. The future is very bright for us. It is a phenomenal position to be in.

R&W: And finally what of the future? Is there any thought of integrating all rotary wing into one force?

AM: The aircraft [MRH-90] will be operated by one airworthiness authority, the commander 16 Brigade and there will be one maintenance agency. The topic has been discussed a number of times but no developments have come out. The decision in 1985 to transfer the battlefield helicopters to the Army as we are integral to the land battle has worked well. Under Air 9000 Phase 7 we will probably remove the Squirrel and the Kiowa as training aircraft and replace it with one type. The Navy is also currently running a competition for 24 new helicopters [between Sikorsky’s MH-60R and NH Industries NH-90].

We have an ongoing commitment to East Timor—from Kiowas and Black Hawks with the Timor-Leste Aviation Group. This provides a day/night air mobile, logistical and quick reaction force (QRF). While a considerable amount of daytime logistics and administration is now being done by civil contractors, the QRF and aero-medical evacuations (AMEs) by day and night is still a military role and the troop of S-70 Black Hawks have flown over 18,000 hours in East Timor alone. They still operate on a six-month cycle but they are there continuously.

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