A defence industry insider writes:


Monday’s AFR carried an interesting
story by Geoffrey Barker, suggesting the big European defence contractor, EADS,
was gearing up for another push at the Australian market, with a bid to sell
more helicopters to the Australian Defence Force.

EADS Chief Executive, Thomas Enders, was
gushing in his promise of what the French/German consortium could bring
to Australia. But he failed to mention what senior defence
officials see as growing problems with its two current programs – the
Tiger
Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter and the NH90 utility helicopter (designated as the MRH90 elsewhere).

Defence chiefs confirmed in Senate
Estimates
(p29-30) in February, the serious problems with the Tiger program which is
running up to 18 months late.

The problem is that while Australia’s
relatively small order of Tigers is being delivered close to schedule, major
difficulties with the bulk of the fleet elsewhere in Europe, mean there are not
enough certified aircraft, instructors and simulators. In Australia
there is just one instructor and no trained pilots. Combined with a 10-month delay in delivering
the flight simulator to Australia, it is now accepted that there is almost no chance of the aircraft
being operational by mid 2007 as promised.

The problems in Australia
flow from well-documented difficulties in delivery of the Tiger in European
markets. So angered are the French by
the delays that they are imposing penalties.
Similar delays have spilled over into Germany, Sweden
and Finland.

Jane’s Defence Weekly
reported in November 2005:

French
Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie described the delay in deliveries
as
“unacceptable” during a hearing before the Parliament’s defence
committee in early October, saying Eurocopter’s problems in delivering
the
Tiger not only affected the French Army but had a negative impact on
exports of
the helicopter as well. Only three Tigers have so far been delivered to
France. In all, eight are due to arrive in 2005 under the
country’s 2003-2008 military allocation plan. Eurocopter is also far
behind in
deliveries of Germany’s UHT
variant of the Tiger. The German army only took delivery of its third
Tiger in
mid-November.

EADS other major program, the NH90 is
running into problems across a number of countries including France, Germany, Sweden, Italy and
Netherlands. And perhaps ominously for Australia,
the ADF committed in late 2004 to purchase 12 for its Air 9000 troop lift
capability.

These aircraft are facing major delays in
manufacture, certification and delivery. Aviation Week reported in January this year: “The rapid influx of export orders, combined with
delays in qualifying the helicopter and mission systems, have prompted
questions about the ability of the program to meet delivery commitments.”

It is now accepted in defence circles that Australia’s
order of 12 NH90s will probably fall well behind schedule as the company
wrestles to meet its lagging European commitments. Further Australian orders
would have to join the back of the queue – and this from a helicopter program
that is producing just 350 worldwide.

Some of this goes back to Australia’s
predilection for equipment that fits our so-called unique defence requirements
– equipment that often ends up late, over budget and in need of costly
modifications. Often, where there is an
off-the-shelf solution, Australia opts for a niche capability.
Like the Tiger, the NH90 is a relatively new, developmental aircraft,
essentially unproven on the battlefield.

This is a timely problem for the new
defence minister, Brendan Nelson, who inherits a number of difficult legacy
programs from his predecessor, Robert Hill. Helicopters have become something of a
poisoned chalice for defence ministers, none more so than the Seasprite. There are warning signs that the Tiger and
NH90 programs may be headed down a similar route.

Peter Fray

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