MRH-90 Taipan Multi Role Helicopter
The MRH-90 multi-role helicopter replaced the ADF's existing Black Hawk and Sea King helicopter fleets with increased and improved capability, ability and capacity to meet emerging requirements. With the Taipans beleaguered by problems for more than a decade the Government announced on 10 December 2021 that it was scoping the acquisition of 40 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to replace the Australian Army’s 40 MRH-90 Taipan helicopters. The Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton, deemed the aircraft inefficient, expensive and unreliable asserting ‘they haven’t lived up to expectation’. According to Minister Dutton, since the aircraft entered service there have been nine occasions when flying operations ceased due to ongoing problems.
The 10 December 2021 announcement was unambiguous about the failings of the MRH-90 project and the Government’s intention to promptly source an alternative helicopter for Army. However, the fate of the 47 MRH-90 helicopters currently in service with the RAN and Army is yet to be announced.
The Multi-Role Helicopter (MRH) Program is a key component of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Helicopter Strategic Master Plan that seeks to rationalise the number of helicopter types in ADF service. The MRH Program consists of three phases of AIR 9000. Phase 2 (12 helicopters) is the acquisition of an additional Squadron of troop lift aircraft for the Australian Army, Phase 4 (28 helicopters) will replace Army’s Black Hawk helicopters in the Air Mobile and Special Operations roles, and Phase 6 (6 helicopters) will replace Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Sea King helicopters in the Maritime Support Helicopter role. All three phases are grouped under the AIR 9000 MRH Program.
While the RAN and Army use the MRH-90 Taipan helicopters in different modes (the RAN uses the aircraft as a maritime support helicopter and the Army uses it as a tactical troop transport platform) both services have experienced significant problems. The RAN had ongoing problems with the enhanced cargo hook system, among other things, which delayed the aircraft reaching FOC. This matter was eventually resolved at the end of 2020. Nevertheless the RAN decided to replace its six MRH-90 helicopters prior to achieving FOC in 2022.
On October 2021 the United States Government approved a possible Foreign Military Sale (FMS) to Australia of 12 MH-60R multi-mission helicopters for the RAN. This would be an expansion of the RAN’s existing fleet of 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters. The ongoing delays resulted in the need to extend the service life of the Australian Army’s Black Hawk helicopters to 2022 (all of which had originally been scheduled for retirement by the end of 2013). Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Richard Burr, warned in March 2021 that any further delays with the MRH-90 would be a problem as the Army would not be able to use the current fleet of Black Hawk helicopters beyond the end of 2022.
The MRH-90 Taipan multi-role helicopter was acquired to replace the RAN’s Sea King helicopters and the Army’s Black Hawk helicopters and was expected to remain in service until 2037. However, persistent technical difficulties, rising costs and delays resulted in the MRH-90 helicopter project being placed on the ‘Projects of Concern’ list in November 2011. As at 30 June 2021 it was the only major project still on the list.
The MRH-90 capability has more built-in safety features that meet or exceed the ADF's requirements and utilise the latest technology including composite materials and fly-by-wire systems that will provide more efficient maintenance. The MRH-90 will be available for two airmobile squadrons, one special operations support squadron, and one maritime support helicopter squadron, 808 Squadron, able to provide airmobile and maritime support capability to the ADF from land bases as well as the Canberra Class Amphibious Assault Ships.
The MRH90 aircraft is based upon the German Army variant of the NH90 Troop Transport Helicopter. The MRH90 design uses well established aerospace technologies, but will introduce new technologies into Army and Navy, primarily in the areas of composite structure, helmet mounted sight and display and fly-by-wire flight control systems. The MRH Program is providing an MRH90 capability to two main users - Army and Navy. The capability delivery complexity this introduces has been mitigated through an agreement between Chief of Army and Chief of Navy. This provides the project with a single interface for introduction into service issues.
The MRH Program Office Design Acceptance Strategy is dependent upon the French Military Airworthiness Authority’s (Direction Générale de l’Armament (DGA)) prior acceptance of the NH90 variants and certification recommendation for the MRH90. The DGA and other National Qualification Organisations’ prior acceptance of European NH90s provide confidence for the ADF to leverage off common certification evidence for the MRH90.
According to the ANAO some of the problems with the MRH-90 included engine failure; transmission oil cooler fan failures; poor availability of spares; problems with the cargo hook on the RAN aircraft; and problems with door gun mounts and the fast roping and rappelling device (FRRD) on the Army helicopters. These led to a slow rate of acceptance into service and reliability and Rate of Effort being below contracted levels. The ANAO reported that these problems were a ‘consequence of program development deficiencies and acquisition decisions during the period 2002 to 2006’.
The most recent budget figure for the MRH-90 helicopters, as shown in the ANAO’s Major Projects Report 2020-21, was $3.7 billion as at June 2021. The budget at second pass approval was $3.5 billion. The high cost and limited availability of the aircraft continued to be a problem. As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) calculated in its Cost of Defence 2021-22 publication, the helicopter’s estimated operating costs were $30,000 to $40,000 per hour, which is ‘higher than those combat aircraft with sophisticated weapons and sensor systems’. More recently the cost has blown out to $50,000 per hour. Overall, says ASPI, the MRH-90 helicopter ‘has provided far too few flying hours for far too much money for far too long’.
One of the main problems with the Army’s MRH-90 Taipan helicopter is the door is not wide enough to allow its self-defence gun to fire while personnel exit the aircraft. The door problem has been an issue since the aircraft was purchased in 2005. Since then, three different gun mounts have been unsuccessfully installed. The 2014 ANAO report into the MRH-90 project highlighted the lack of design maturity and in particular the function and performance specifications for the gun mounts: "… the MRH90 aircraft shall be able to be fitted with a Self Defence Gun Mount in each of the cabin doorways. However, the installation of door mounted guns interferes with a range of helicopter cabin workflow requirements. Troops need to move around the guns as they enter and leave the aircraft, the doors need to be open when the guns are in use, and the FRRD [Fast Roping and Rappelling Device] cannot be safely used in the same doorway as the gun."
The report goes on to say that the Australian Army considered the ‘cabin and role equipment are not fit for purpose’ as the seat size and harness cannot accommodate personnel wearing combat gear. Additionally the Army stated: "… the gun mounted in the side door may be unacceptable. The current configuration impedes ingress/egress, as well as the ability to defend the aircraft with the gun during embarkation and disembarkation. As a result, Army representatives have stated that the MRH-90 may be unable to meet certain Airmobile support to Special Operations roles ..."
The design changes to fix these issues are outside the scope of the current contract. [Australian Aerospace—now Airbus AP] has proposed a number of improvements, but these represent significant design changes with potentially high cost and technical risk. In addition, the time that would be required to make the changes could seriously impact availability of the aircraft.
Aircraft system lack of maturity affected the certification schedule of the MRH90 and subsequently the declaration of capability milestones. Cabin integration issues, including the Fast Roping and Rappelling Device, the self-defence gun mount and the cabin seating have impacted the achievement of these capability milestones. The volume of engineering change proposals impacted aircraft delivery. In addition, the project is managing issues affecting Final Materiel Release including the Common Mission Management System, a replacement Fast Roping, Rappelling and Extraction System, the Electronic Warfare Self Protection System, the Full Flight Mission Simulator, the Enhanced Cargo Hook System, the Taipan Gun Mount and the Aero-medical Evacuation Capability.
The Additional Troop Lift project was first foreshadowed in the Defence White Paper 2000. The MRH Program consists of Phases 2, 4 & 6. Phase 2 was approved initially, providing 12 additional Troop Lift helicopters for Army. Phases 4 & 6 were approved subsequently with Phase 4 which provided 28 helicopters as the replacement of the Australian Army’s fleet of 34 S-70A-9 Black Hawk helicopters, again for troop lift capability, and Phase 6 provided 6 helicopters as the replacement of the RAN’s fleet of six Sea King helicopters, providing maritime support capability for Navy. The delivery of a 47th MRH90 was negotiated as part of Deed 2. This enables the use of one airframe as a Ground Training Device without impacting the operational fleet.
In total, the AIR 9000 MRH Program will acquire 47 MRH90 aircraft and support systems. Support capabilities, such as Electronic Warfare Self Protection Support System, MRH Software Support Centre, MRH Instrumentation System and a Ground Mission Management System, will be acquired along with training systems and in-service support.
The Phase 2 Acquisition Contract was signed with Airbus Group Australia Pacific (Airbus Group AP) in June 2005 with the subsequent Sustainment and Program Agreement contracts signed in July 2005. In November 2005 the Defence Capability and Investment Committee agreed that the way forward was to seek a combined first and second pass approval for both Phases 4 and 6 as part of a single approval process.
Cabinet endorsement was gained in April 2006 in a combined first and second pass process for Phase 4 and Phase 6. The agreed method of procurement, a two stage Contract Change Proposal (CCP), resulted in the execution of options contained in the Program Agreement for the procurement of additional aircraft approved under Phases 4 and 6. Initial CCPs for the Acquisition, Sustainment and Program Agreement Contracts were signed in June 2006.
The three AIR 9000 Phase 2/4/6 contracts (Program Agreement Contract, Acquisition Contract and Sustainment Contract) incorporate the above CCPs. On acceptance of two MRH90, appropriate training, maintenance and supply support, an In-Service Date of December 2007 was achieved with aircraft operating under a Special Flight Permit granted by the Chief of Air Force. This triggered the Sustainment Contract to come into effect and all three contracts are now currently active. The Commonwealth suspended acceptance of aircraft from Airbus Group AP in November 2010; deliveries recommenced in November 2011 after negotiations of a remediation plan (Deed of Agreement and CCPs) to address a number of engineering and reliability issues. Concurrent with the recommencement of aircraft acceptance in November 2011, the Minister for Defence announced that the project would be listed as a Project of Concern citing schedule, aircraft technical deficiencies and Airbus Group AP’s performance.
The Commonwealth has conducted negotiations with the prime contractor to review and settle commercial, technical and schedule issues resulting in a variation to the original contract signed on 9 May 2013, which has been termed ‘Deed 2’. Deed 2, which came into effect on 1 July 2013 re-baselined the delivery schedule and addressed commercial and technical issues. As a result of the Deed 2 negotiations with the contractor, the final delivery of aircraft has been rescheduled to July 2017; this, and ongoing technical deficiencies, resulted in delays to the Final Materiel Release (FMR) and Final Operational Capability (FOC) milestones. However, a number of capability milestones have been declared, including Army Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in December 2014, Navy IOC in February 2015, first Operational Capability Land (OCL1) in September 2015, second and third Operational Capability Amphibious (OCA2/3) in December 2015, and the second Operational Capability Land (OCL2) in March 2016. The FMR and FOC dates are currently under review and are expected to be clarified in Quarter 4 2017 with the approval of a revised Materiel Acquisition Agreement.
Forty six aircraft have been accepted into service with the first two aircraft accepted into service in Brisbane on 18 December 2007 in a ceremony attended by The Hon Greg Combet MP, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement. The final aircraft programmed for acceptance in July 2017. The first thirteen aircraft required an in-service retrofit to bring them up to the full Phase 2/4/6 capability baseline. All thirteen aircraft have been retrofitted and accepted back into service.
Remediation to rectify concerns regarding configuration management issues of production aircraft has slowed the acceptance of production aircraft, this in turn has slowed the rate of capability growth. The Chief of Army has agreed to delay introduction of MRH90 into 6th Aviation Regiment by 3 years, because of reliability and design shortfalls, extending the Black Hawk fleet to 2022 to mitigate the risk to capability. The delayed introduction to 6th Aviation Regiment will mean the growth in total MRH90 flying hours will temporarily stabilise below the planned mature rate. The aircraft intended for 6th Aviation Regiment will continue to be accepted and rotated through the fleet. Both Full Flight Mission Simulators have been accepted (the first in August 2013 and the second in October 2014).
Following achievement of In-Service Date (ISD) with agreed partial achievement of the contracted MRH capabilities, there has been significant work by both Industry and the Commonwealth to define and implement a series of capability block enhancements to bring the MRH90 to contracted standards. This included a retrofit program to progressively bring all aircraft up to the contracted standard. By 2017 MRH was achieving three quarters of the required Rate of Effort (ROE). . However, this is due to the proportionately larger stock of spares which is designed to support the full fleet. Further improvements to aircraft serviceability commenced as part of a maintenance reliability program to maintain and subsequently improve this ROE as the final aircraft are delivered.
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