Replacing Australia’s Tigers. Really?

One little sentence in Australia’s Defence White Paper published on 24th February: “The Government will replace the 22 Tiger Armed Reconnaissance helicopters with a new armed reconnaissance capability from the mid-2020s” took everybody by surprise, from the Australian Army and Defence Materiel Organisation to Airbus Helicopters, the aircraft’s manufacturer. And now they are all scrambling to try and understand exactly what is behind the phrase given that there are no explanations as to why the Tiger would be replaced in the mid 2020s when it would still have another decade, at least, of capability. In addition Australia has not pulled out of preliminary discussions being held with other Tiger users (France, Germany and Spain) set up last September by project manager OCCAR, the European organisation for joint armament cooperation, to develop the mid-life upgrade of the aircraft, the Tiger Mk3. OCCAR told FOB today that it could “confirm that the discussion with Australia regarding the Mk3 upgrade is ongoing.

What does the Defence White Paper mean exactly when it says the Australian Tigers will be replaced?

What does the Defence White Paper mean exactly when it says the Australian Tigers will be replaced?

Airbus Helicopters told FOB that the Australian Tiger has not yet been declared in “final operational capability” as it still needs to be certified for naval capabilities, that is: landing and taking-off from a ship at sea and all the interfaces which that operation requires.

According to the “Major [Defence Procurement] Projects Report” published on 15 January 2016 by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), the Tiger has slipped 79 months behind the original planned Final Operational Capability (FOC) which should have been declared in mid-2010. ANAO says, however, it has “high confidence” FOC will be achieved in 2016. The ANAO report blames the “extended schedule slippage” on the misclassification of the Tiger (and the MRH90 helicopter also made by Airbus Helicopters) as “Military-off-the-Shelf” (MOTS) procurements “when the projects were both actually Australianised MOTS (i.e. more developmental).”

The Defence White Paper phrase is also hard to understand because the Tiger was “removed from the projects of concern list in April 2008” according to the ANAO report, and has stayed almost within budget at A$2,032.7m (€1,331.3m).

In addition, the Tiger’s 95% project maturity puts it just behind the E-7A Wedgetail (airborne early warning and control), as the most mature of Australia’s 25 major defence procurement projects.

The Auditor’s report also notes that as at 30 June 2015 “having reviewed the current financial and contractual obligations of the project, current known risks and estimated future expenditure, Defence considers, as at the reporting date, there is sufficient budget remaining for the project to complete against the agreed scope.

FOB was also told the Australian Army was surprised by the White Paper phrase because it is now satisfied with the aircraft. Back in October 2014, when Major Kelvin Muller was commander of 161 Reconnaissance Squadron, he said during Exercise Chong Ju at Australia’s Puckapunyal Army Base that the Tiger is a “highly manoeuvrable and extremely capable aircraft.” He explained that the helicopter’s “capability (is) now combat ready” adding that “the Tiger is a fantastic aircraft, effective in providing responsive and accurate fires. It is a force multiplier for the Australian defence force.

The project has delivered 22 aircraft including an instrumented aircraft (permanently fitted with in-flight test instrumentation), a Full Flight and Mission Simulator, two Cockpit Procedures Trainers, Groundcrew Training Devices, Electronic Warfare Mission Support System, Ground Mission Equipment, with supporting stores, facilities and ammunition. Airbus Helicopters said it had seen with interest in the Australian Defence White Paper a mention that “New light helicopters will be acquired to support Special Forces operations.” The company has the H135 and H145 twin-engine helicopters on its catalogue that would meet this requirement.