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US accelerates Black Hawk deliveries to Australia

The US will accelerate the delivery of three extra Black Hawk helicopters to Australia in 2024 following the federal government’s decision to retire the beleaguered Taipan early.

The decision means Army will have a fleet of 12 this year, as part of a wider announcement that also sees Lockheed Martin awarded a $340 million sustainment contract for the aircraft.

Last year, the federal government announced Australia would purchase 40 Black Hawks in a US$2 billion deal. Months later, the aircraft it’s set to replace, the Taipan, was grounded after one crashed in the sea off Hamilton Island, killing four crew onboard. It was the latest in a string of incidents involving the helicopter.

That temporary suspension was then later made permanent, increasing the need for the Black Hawks to arrive earlier than planned.

On Wednesday, Defence Minister Richard Marles revealed Army will receive early delivery of a Black Hawk aircrew training simulator and procure five H135 “Juno” training helicopters from the United Kingdom.

Australia and the UK government are working closely to bring the training helicopters to the Southern Hemisphere, with operations expected to commence in Oakey, Queensland, by mid-year.

“We have been working with the United States and the United Kingdom on ways in which we can bridge this gap, and their support and willingness with the acceleration of the Black Hawks and leasing of training helicopters will have a significant impact,” said Marles.

On the same day, the federal government also revealed that Lockheed Martin Australia had been awarded a $340 million contract to provide integrated support and maintenance to the new Black Hawk fleet.

The defence prime said the deal would mean it would employ more than 200 aircraft maintenance engineers, logisticians, and skilled aviation technical jobs over the next five years across Holsworthy, Oakey and Brisbane.

It comes after Australian Aviation reported last month how Australia was committed to disposing of its Taipans rather than selling them.

Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy said a global search undertaken by MRH-90 Taipan contractor NATO Helicopter Industries to find buyers for the fleet uncovered “zero interest” before hitting back at public scrutiny over the government’s refusal to send the capability to Ukraine.

“After the tragic crash last year, we were faced with a circumstance where the fleet had to be grounded while those crash investigations were undertaken, and they’re still ongoing,” Minister Conroy said.

“The government made the decision to permanently ground the fleet, and in September last year, some months before any request was received, we began the disposal strategy. We then worked with Airbus, the manufacturer of the helicopter, to establish whether there was any existing users that were interested in the air frames, and there were none.

“We then contracted NATO Helicopter Industries to do a global scan of the market to see if anyone was interested in buying the air frames who was a new customer. There was zero interest in buying the air frames.

“Therefore, the best value for taxpayers was to disassemble the aircraft and to begin selling the spare parts. Because the other option would have been to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to Airbus Australia to maintain these aircraft in a flying condition when there was no prospect that they would be flying again for the Australian Army.”