24 Oktober 2009
Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk (photo : Sflorg)
Military Opts for US Chopper
AUSTRALIA'S military chiefs favour the US over Europe in a planned $4 billion naval combat helicopter buy that is generating high-level concern among senior government ministers and local defence industry leaders.
In a classified submission sent to defence ministers John Faulkner and Greg Combet, the military chiefs have opted for the US Navy's MH-60R Seahawk as the best choice for the Royal Australian Navy's new rotary wing anti-submarine warfare platform.
The military chiefs favour an early decision on the Sikorsky MH-60R, arguing that it represents a cheaper, risk-free solution for Australia compared with its competitor, the European NH90 naval frigate helicopter.
The NH90 is a maritime version of the MRH90 now entering service with the Australian army. Its maker, European defence giant EADS, has established a strong industry presence locally with a workforce of 1000.
The clear military preference for a US solution troubles ministers, given the multi-billion-dollar investment in European combat helicopters by the Australian Defence Force in recent years.
Another concern is that selecting a new US helicopter will fly in the face of Defence's goal of reducing the types of helicopters flown by the ADF.
Senior Defence figures are querying the wisdom of a "sole source" decision in favour of the US in what will be the biggest defence purchase in the Rudd government's new defence capability plan, which details the main equipment proposals to be finalised over the next four years.
Mr Combet, the Defence Materiel Minister, said last night that the government would consider both options for the navy's new combat helicopters.
"This is an extremely important acquisition, one of the most significant in the DCP.
"The government would be concerned to approach such an acquisition after very carefully looking at the options which, at least, include both a US and a European capability."
At a media briefing yesterday Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin officials stressed their belief that the MH-60R represented the lowest possible risk as well as lowest cost solution for the RAN's naval helicopter arm.
They have also promised $1bn of investment in local industry if the deal goes through. Australian Aerospace, the local subsidiary of EADS which also supplies the army's Tiger helicopters, argues that big cost savings will be realised by a common baseline for the ADF's rotary wing, removing the need for multiple training and logistics systems.
Stung by the $1.4bn Seasprite helicopter procurement debacle, Defence chiefs want an accelerated purchase of the Sikorsky MH-60R in a foreign military sale purchase via the US Navy.
They believe there are clear advantages in buying proven American technology, including better interoperability between the two navies.
Sikorsky says it could deliver the first MH-60R to the RAN by late 2011 and points to four fleet squadrons already operating with the US Navy.
Cabinet's national security committee is expected to consider the Defence Department submission before Christmas as concerns mount in the navy about the run-down of the RAN's anti-submarine capability.
Not only did the RAN not get its now-junked Seasprite helicopters but the 16 elderly S-70B machines in service are not delivering the vital operational availability the navy needs.
The RAN wants to buy 24 helicopters that would enter operational service by 2014. They will be equipped with missiles and torpedoes, and perform both anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare roles.