By KATE BANVILLE
AUSTRALIA has taken delivery of two new heavy-lift battlefield helicopters as part of a deal worth half a billion dollars.
With only eight hours flight hours clocked, the two new CH-47 Chinooks touched down in Townsville on Wednesday afternoon on board the gigantic US AirForce C5-M – the largest military aircraft owned by the US.
Australia’s current fleet of Chinook helicopters will grow from 10 to 14 under this acquisition program, with the third and fourth Chinooks expected to arrive in Australia in mid-2022.
“The Chinook is Defence’s largest helicopter, with a long and proven track record of supporting ADF operations in Australia, our near region and further afield,” Defence Minister Peter Dutton said.
Townsville’s 5 Aviation Regiment took ownership of the two CH-47 chinooks, which drew large crowds as people watched in awe of the spectacular landing, before the helicopters were then unloaded from the front of the plane in what was nothing short of a logistical feat.
Flying direct from Honolulu, the US Airforce crew only had three hours in Townsville to unload the choppers and take off on a direct flight to Guam. Most of the US troops stayed on board in order to maintain their strict COVID-19 quarantine requirements.
“Whether you’re an aviator or non aviator its super exciting to see these coming in and everytime there is something like this for 5 Aviation there is a huge amount of pride,” said Major Nicholas Ludwick, one of the Regiment’s Squadron Commanders.
The delivery comes just days ahead of Australia’s largest wargames with foreign forces, and as it’s $3.8 billion fleet of 47 MRH-90 Taipan helicopters remains suspended from service because of major safety and maintenance issues discovered in May.
The latest incident comes as defence officials concede a fault found in one of the helicopters in 2019 amid serious concerns about the tail rotor blades – when it was on its way to pick up the Australian Defence Force chief, Angus Campbell – could have led to “catastrophic consequences” if left unfixed.
Costing about $50 million per chopper, the MRH-90s, made and managed by Airbus, only started arriving in Australia in 2007.
Previous figures provided by the Defence Department estimates the total cost of the MRH-90 Taipan program will be $15 billion by the time the helicopters are due to be withdrawn from service in 2037, including $3.7 billion for the purchase and $11.3 billion to sustain them.
A spokesperson for Airbus Helicopters said they were “working closely with the Australian Defence Force to resolve the situation and end the suspension as soon as possible”. But even so, its unlikely they’ll be back in the air in time for the war games which begin in the coming days.
With a backdrop of the pandemic, Talisman Sabre has hasn’t been without uncertainty either. Just last week the major exercise was paused and troops from the 3rd Brigade in Townsville were sent home during a three day lockdown ordered by the state government for parts of Queensland. Defence officials had no choice but to watch the situation unfold and work on contingency plans.
Tens of thousands of troops are expected to descend on North Queensland in the coming weeks and days, with US forces completing the remainder of their quarantine in Brisbane, a Defence official said.
“The plans leading up to TS remain deliberately flexible almost to the fluent stage, noting there were so many uncertainties,” Major Nicholas Ludwick said.
“But planning in a lack of information is actually one of the strengths of the defence force and so contingency planning is something we always take into account so this (delivery of chinooks) is validation the planning done worked to enable TS to go ahead.”
SLIDESHOW: Images supplied