MRH-90 Taipan: Why Did Australia Discard Relatively New European Helicopters Worth Billions of Dollars For US ‘Hawks’?

Australia announced that it would replace its entire fleet of MRH-90 Taipan helicopters with 40 US-made Black Hawks and 12 Seahawks. 

The fleet of MRH-90 Taipan helicopters, which has been in service with the Australian Army since 2007, is constantly plagued by issues related to maintenance and poor availability of spare parts, although it is considered better than the Black Hawk performance-wise.

The decision to scrap the European-designed helicopter comes about a decade sooner than expected.

NHIndustries NH90 - Wikipedia
NH90 Taipan – Wikipedia

Defense Minister Peter Dutton has confirmed that the Army and Navy will scrap the 47 MRH-90 Taipan helicopters. He went on to say that the Taipan has been a “project of concern” from the last decade, it’s had nine instances where it’s been unsuitable to fly.  

The Department of Defense claimed last year that the Taipans’ doors were too narrow to allow for firing when troops descended from the chopper. “Getting up to 40 of them will, I think, send a very clear message to our partners and to our adversaries that the Australian Defense Force is serious about defending Australia and making sure that we can make a significant contribution when we’re called on,” Dutton said, showing a sense of urgency amid growing Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific region.

The MRH-90 project has been running since 2004 and hasn’t yet achieved what it promised. 

MRH-90 Taipan

The MRH-90 Taipan is a twin-engine, advanced medium-lift, multi-role helicopter produced by Australian Aerospace, a subsidiary of Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters). The Australian Navy and Army operate this helicopter, that is capable of executing a variety of missions including troop transport, counter-terrorism, search-and-rescue, medical evacuation and special operations. It is equipped with built-in safety features and offers enhanced maneuverability.

The helicopter spans 16.13 meters in length and 5.23 meters high, with an empty weight of 6,400 kilograms and a maximum take-off weight of 10,600 kilograms. It is capable of executing missions under difficult weather conditions.

A Royal Australian Navy sailor is lowered from an MRH-90 Maritime Support Helicopter: Image: Royal Australian Navy

It has a wide and spacious cabin in the center fuselage that can accommodate 20 troop seats, including those of the pilot and the co-pilot or up to 12 stretchers. Both sides of the cabin have sliding doors, and there is a ramp at the back.

A fly-by-wire, all-electric flight control system, weather radar, and forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems are all installed on the helicopter. A Monitoring and Diagnostic System (MDS) is established to ensure that the various types of equipment and sub-systems are working properly.

Its core avionics system controls and displays the navigation and communication equipment. A mission system for tactical communications, sensors, and flight planning is also included.

Why Were MRH-90 Taipan Helicopters Procured?

The Taipan was first delivered to the army and navy in 2004. At a cost of $3 billion, Canberra bought the fleet from a European helicopter manufacturer to complement and eventually replace the Australian Army’s Black Hawks and Royal Australian Navy’s Sea King helicopters.

However, due to the shortage of spare parts and high operating costs, the navy has already begun to dump its portion of the choppers and given them to the army. 

According to previous estimates from the Defense Department, the overall cost of the MRH-90 Taipan program will be $15 billion by the time the helicopters are scheduled to be retired in 2037, including $3.7 billion for procurement and $11.3 billion for maintenance.

MRH-90 Taipan
Aviation support trainees practice winching operations from an MRH90 helicopter (Australian Navy photo)

The Australian military has also started flying two Leonardo AW139 helicopters in Townsville after signing a lease agreement with Helicorp, (Toll Helicopters), as a temporary measure to keep pilots up to date on flight hours.

The two leased AW139s are used to support exercises and training, as well as emergency response missions, such as during the high-risk weather season.

Dutton announced the government’s decision to scrap all 47 Army and Navy Taipan helicopters during a visit to Sydney’s Victoria Barracks, despite Defense Chief Angus Campbell hailing them as “an extraordinarily advanced helicopter” last year.

Since its induction in the Australian Military, the helicopter has been plagued by maintenance troubles. In early 2021, the Australian military’s fleet of 47 MRH 90 Taipan helicopters was grounded due to maintenance and safety issues with the aircraft’s support system.

The fleet was grounded in 2019 as well, due to severe tail rotor vibration and delamination, which necessitated the replacement of tail rotors throughout the fleet. 

The Defense Department stated earlier this year that it was spending more than $37 million in Townsville to hire civilian helicopters to retain capability while it dealt with long-standing issues with the MRH-90 Taipans.

The MRH-90’s effectiveness has been severely hampered by persistent shortages of spare parts, and a design defect renders it impossible to operate a door gun while troops disembark.

According to Andrew McLaughlin, writing for the Australian Defence Business Review (ADBR), “Many of the availability issues are reportedly attributable to European certification standards being different from those of the US from which the ADF sources most of its equipment, as well as difficulties in maintaining configuration management through the more than 40 different sub-variants of the baseline NH 90 helicopter which is built on six final assembly lines and is in service in Europe and the Middle East.”

Previously, Australia’s largest bilateral training activity with the United States, a defense spokesperson stated that the MRH-90 Taipan will not be used in the military exercise. Moreover, following the AUKUS pact, thus the Black Hawk made great sense for interoperability with the US and Australia, which is becoming increasingly vital for the region.