Airbus, Bell, Boeing Offer Attack Helicopters To Australia

BEIJING and ADELAIDE, Australia—Airbus, Bell and Boeing have formally offered their attack-helicopter types to fill a requirement to replace the European manufacturer’s Tiger ARH in Australian Army service.

Boeing has proposed the AH-64E Apache and Airbus a modernized version of the Tiger for the requirement for 29 units. The defense department in Canberra is aiming at initial operational capability in 2026.

Airbus emphasizes the potential savings of its proposed upgrade, which it calculates as more than AU$3 billion ($2 billion), presumably based on using the current aircraft and keeping much of the support infrastructure.

Bell said its offer, the AH-1Z Viper, was assured of production until beyond the intended Australian contract date, meaning the type will be available. 

This has not always seemed certain in the several years in which Canberra has discussed its acquisition plan without naming a date for the order.

BAE Systems said it would help bring the AH-1Z into Australian service and provide ongoing support.

The program to buy what Australia calls armed reconnaissance helicopters has progressed as far as a request for proposals that sets the second quarter of 2022 as the time for placing an order. The three companies responded by the Aug. 30 deadline. Each of the offers was expected.

“Boeing plans to deliver support services in-country and engage local suppliers to maximize Australian industry involvement for the ARH replacement program,” the company said, announcing its formal offer and noting that it also supports its C-17 Globemaster and 737 AEW&C products in Australian service. 

The company added that the AH-64E would come with the U.S. Army’s plans for modernizing the type until the late 2040s. Since Australia intends to make its new attack helicopters fully operational in 2029, and a service life of at least 20 years can be expected, viability of the chosen type until the late 2040s will be an issue.

When an Australian defense white paper outlined a plan in 2016 to replace the Tiger in the mid-2020s, it was not clear that the AH-1Z would still be in production when Canberra was ready to order.

Timing no longer looks tight for the manufacturer. “Bell’s production line has deliveries booked until 2023 and the company has prospects in Japan and South Korea,” said Javier Ball, manager for international sales campaigns at Bell. Czechia said on Aug. 22 that it planned to buy four AH-1Zs, with deliveries of those helicopters and eight Bell UH-1Y Venoms to begin in 2023. 

Although the company makes no comment on the matter, it may still have to consider whether to order long-lead parts in anticipation of an uncertain Australian AH-1Z order. The issue becomes less problematic if the company judges that it has good prospects in Japan and South Korea, however.

Bell emphasized that its attack helicopter is the only one in the world designed explicitly for shipborne use, which is part of the Australian requirement. 

The company chose BAE in 2016 for support in Australia of the AH-1Z, which would be supplied through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales process. 

If Australia chooses the AH-1Z, Bell will build the aircraft and work with BAE Systems in bringing them into service, said BAE’s business development manager, Rowan Tink. BAE would then provide ongoing support and training.

The Australian Army is focused on Darwin as the main operational site for the new helicopters, so BAE is looking at how the AH-1Z could be best supported there, Tink added.

In contrast to Bell, which mostly supports civil helicopters in Australia, BAE has one of the country’s main defense-industry operations.

Airbus also has a considerable operation in Australia, where it assembled 18 of the 22 Tigers, which were delivered from 2004 to 2011 but did not become finally operational until 2016.

The company emphasizes the maneuverability, and therefore survivability, of the Tiger. “Tiger is an extremely agile, effective, and digitally connected armed reconnaissance helicopter,” said Andrew Mathewson, the head of the company’s Australian and Pacific business.

As for support in Australia, Airbus has already been doing that with the Tiger. The type’s unsatisfactory serviceability led to the decision to replace it early, but Airbus and sources close to army helicopter operations said Australia’s Tigers are now performing well. 

They will, however, be outdated in the late 2020s, hence the proposal to modernize them. Airbus has not said how it would provide the additional seven helicopters to meet the Australian requirement for 29 units. 

—Bradley Perrett, perrett@aviationweek.com


 

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