18 Februari 2016
Bell AH-1Z Viper helicopters (photo : Shephard)
BAE Systems Australia and Bell Helicopter signed an agreement at the Singapore Airshow on 16 February to chase military helicopter opportunities in Australia.
Under the teaming agreement, BAE Systems would help maintain and sustain AH-1Z Viper helicopters, as well as support training for the platform, should the Australian Army pursue such an acquisition from Bell Helicopter.
This relationship stems from well-publicised problems with the Airbus Helicopters Tiger, of which the Australian Army procured 22 Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) examples.
Despite some positive comments from army aviation personnel, Shephard has long been aware of dissatisfaction over the Tiger, which has had a troubled implementation and sustainment issues. Final operational capability (FOC) is still yet to occur, although it is supposed to happen early in 2016.
Under a Tiger ARH Capability Assurance Programme (CAP), the Australian military must decide whether to upgrade or replace its Tigers. Opportunities may thus well arise for contenders such as Bell’s AH-1Z to seize a strategic foothold.
Greater clarity will likely occur when the delayed Defence White Paper is released this year.
Lisa Atherton, Bell Helicopter’s executive vice president of military business, noted, ‘This relationship aligns our interests and pursuits as we work together to pursue opportunities to strengthen and support the capability and posture of the Australian Defence Force.’
Steve Drury, BAE Systems Australia’s aerospace director, told Shephard this is the first time the two have cooperated together.
‘We have been maintaining rotary wing aircraft for more than 20 years and this long-term strategic partnership with Bell Helicopter offers a superior end-to-end military rotorcraft solution.’
Last year the AH-1Z acquired its first export customer, with the Foreign Military Sale of 12 examples to Pakistan.
The Viper, and the UH-1Y Venom that shares 85% parts commonality, are both marinised platforms. With the Royal Australian Navy recently commissioning its second Canberra-class landing helicopter dock (LHD), this could be an attractive quality.
Atherton said the AH-1Z will remain in production until at least 2021, with the potential for a couple of several hundred additional sales around the globe.
She said international sales would not impact manufacturing for the US Marine Corps (USMC) since there is ‘plenty of capacity to increase production’.
Drury said the current agreement does not cover Viper sales outside Australia, nor does it provide support for USMC AH-1Zs that pass through Darwin as part of the rotational force.
Both parties stressed that this is a long-term partnership. Should Australia delineate a utility helicopter requirement in its White Paper, this may represent another opportunity for Bell Helicopter and BAE Systems to partner together.
Speaking to Shephard in September, RAdm Tony Dalton, head of the Helicopters, Unmanned Aerial Systems and Guided Weapons Division (HUG-D) at the Australian Defence Organisation, said despite the issues with Tiger, the ADF was ‘well on the way to a really positive outcome’ with the aircraft.
‘It’s a process and we are working our way through. Both the Tiger and the MRH90 have had their issues so they are running behind schedule but they are both inside their cost envelope, which is good,’ Dalton explained.
‘Tiger is developing, after a slow start, quite nicely. Kilo for kilo it is probably the best attack helicopter in the world and it is a real game-changer when we go to training exercises. It just brings a fantastic capability to the battlefield.
‘But, it has been expensive to operate and it has been difficult to get the support network in place. We went through a pretty big contract negotiation [in 2014] with Airbus’ subsidiary in Australia and we have a new contract in place now that’s really kicking goals in the sustainment space.’