Was Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James just a
little too quick out of the box when he claimed the Navy’s Sea Kings
should have been replaced five to ten years ago? Given it was only 24
hours after Saturday’s accident, some observers reckon James went off a
little too hastily and after being all over the media on Sunday, he
conveniently popped up with this opinion piece in The Australian on Monday.

The ADA is a little bit more broad-based than just representing big defence contractors as you can see from its board here,
but promoters of Defence causes always want the government to spend
more money on defence and there’s nothing like a high profile loss of
life to spark politicians to start spending the taxpayers’ hard-earned.

defence desk has considered the facts surrounding Saturday’s tragic
accident and nine deaths carefully and makes the following points:

  • Just because an airframe is old is not a reason per se to
    say that it’s dangerous. All ADF aircraft are very well maintained and
    the critical parts would almost certainly have been checked many times
    and replaced if necessary. For example, the RAAF’s C130 fleet has a
    exemplary safely record and its older C130 marks have always been in
    the 20-30 year-old bracket when retired.
  • The ADF generally has a very good aviation safety record and its Directorate of Flying Safety is well regarded.
  • The ADF is not alone in having old aircraft in its
    fleet. You will find that the RAF and USAF fleet average age is around
    20 years old. However many of them are refitted with modern operational
    systems to make them more operationally capable.
  • Military aircraft typically fly 200-300 hours per year
    which means that even if they are chronologically old they are not old
    in terms of flying hours after 20 years. Civil airlines fly their
    aircraft at over 3,000 hours a year.
  • It’s true that modern aircraft are more surviveable
    after accidents. They have systems that will protect people, akin to
    seat belts and air bags in cars. The Army’s Tiger helicopter
    demonstrated this when a prototype crashed in Queensland on a demo tour
    before the aircraft was sold to the ADF. The pilots walked away
  • Safety and surviveability have been important criteria
    in the selection of all Australian military hardware in the
    post-Vietnam era.

Meanwhile, Christian Kerr writes:

All the talk in the wake of the weekend’s helicopter points in one direction – concern over maintenance.

Yesterday, the Australian Defence Association warned that the Sea Kings should have been scrapped ten years ago. The 7:30 Report
last night followed up this theme. Retired naval pilot Mike Lehan spoke
of the limitations on carrying out major maintenance on board ship and
said that squeezing two helicopters into the hangar of HMAS Kanimbla
meant mechanics could not carry out major maintenance.

That’s what Crikey’s military moles say, too. One says the disaster was
“probably a major equipment failure, not picked up in maintenance that
was unable to be performed properly in the field”. They also worry
about the pressure being placed on the defence forces. There are
rumblings in the ranks that the prime minister is “too damned eager to
thrust our forces forward to pursue his own agendas, not to mention US
foreign policy”.

Will there be extra money to pay for all that in the Budget?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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