An important element in the Australian government’s increasingly thin defence of its decision to scrap the Taipan helicopter fleet is that a formal request from Ukraine was only received on December 17. The argument goes that by then it was too late to alter the process and the helicopters had already been destroyed.
The problem with that argument is new information reveals that the government was told of Ukraine’s interest in the middle of October by a senior Liberal Senator.
Between October 7 and 12, Senator David Fawcett attended a major NATO meeting in Copenhagen and had several discussions while there with members of the Ukraine military and politicians. They discussed the retirement of the Taipan fleet and the potential use of the helicopters in the fightback against the Russian invasion. The Ukrainians were enthusiastic – especially about using for medical evacuation (MEDEVAC), where they have the potential to save dozens of young lives every day.
Senator Fawcett confirmed to APDR that when he returned to Canberra in the middle of the month, he informed the government of his discussions at NATO and the interest expressed by Ukraine’s military. For the moment, his priority is getting some of the Taipans back into service and transferred to Ukraine and he prefers not to go into more details just yet but is firmly on the record that he made the government fully aware of the situation back then.
He is one of the most experienced and knowledge Parliamentarians when it comes to military matters, especially regarding helicopters. He is a former Army test pilot and has flown many rotary-winged aircraft. Senator Fawcett has a reputation for thoroughness and integrity, a consequence of which is that he is held in high regard by all sides of politics. He was also the former Assistant Defence Minister in the Morrison government.
Despite this, both the Defence Minister Richard Marles and Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy continue to propagate the myth that they knew nothing about Ukraine’s interest until December 17. Clearly, this is not credible.
In addition to Senator Fawcett’s conversations in mid-October, the Ambassador for Ukraine, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, also made his normal regular representations for military aid throughout the entire period. Yet the government expects the Australian public to believe that they were somehow completely in the dark until shortly before Christmas, despite everything that was going on – including daily media references to the Russian invasion.
Clearly the government – and the Army – were in a mad rush to destroy all the helicopters to stop then being used by anyone else. Even now falsehoods regarding their exact condition are being repeated. On January 18, in his capacity as Acting Defence Minister, Pat Conroy said:
“None of the aircraft are currently in flying condition and it is not feasible to return the aircraft to an operational state.”
This is simply not true. Several aviation professionals with inside knowledge have explained to APDR that the Taipans are in fact in a wide variety of configurations. Some have been almost completely pulled apart, but many others are in far better condition. Their assessment is that anywhere between 12 and 20 Taipans could be reassembled without any great difficulty.
This process could be carried out not only by the OEM, Airbus Helicopters, but also by a few hundred Army Aviation technicians who now have nothing to do until large numbers of replacement Black Hawk helicopters arrive in the coming years.
Another matter that irks many of these same professionals – to put it mildly – is that the government continues to smear the reputation of Taipan, hinting darkly that there are safety concerns about them. As we have explained in many previous articles, the Taipans – part of the NH90 family of multi-role helicopters – are one of the world’s safest military platforms.
There are more than 500 of them in service around the world, including in ten NATO countries, and they have a superb safety record. Since 2008 they have experienced eight fatalities in only 11 reported incidents, including the four Australian personnel who lost their lives in a July crash last year during Exercise Talisman Sabre.
As a result of examining the Flight Data Recorder and cockpit voice recorder recovered from the crash site, it has already been concluded that the Taipan was functioning completely normally until the moment of impact. The government knows this.
Having said that, for several years Greens Senator David Shoebridge has been pursuing Army over a rare but potentially serious flaw in the night vision systems of the Taipan. This is a highly technical matter including the interaction of the pilot’s TopOwl helmet-mounted display, and its symbology when used in conjunction with the Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) sensor.
The longstanding concern of Senator Shoebridge is that Army has been aware of this Australian-specific issue but has not taken all the necessary steps to fix it. During Senate Estimates hearings on October 25 last year, this exchange with the Head of Army Aviation Command, Major General Stephen Jobson, is illustrative:
“Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You see, General Jobson, when you didn’t like the reports that came out of the flight testing, rather than fix the equipment and address the concerns or potentially ground the aircraft, Army Aviation went through a process of getting further reports to try and discredit those reports and discredit the risks.
“That’s what actually happened, isn’t it? Rather than address the problem, there was a desperate search for reports which would permit them to continue to be put in the air despite the safety issues.
“Major Gen. Jobson: Respectfully, I do not agree with your assessment. Once again, I’ll reiterate that a thorough professional process was undertaken in accordance with the Defence Aviation Safety Framework that ensured the equipment could be brought in to service for the benefit of our aircrew to improve upon previous equipment that had been employed in the aircraft system, to ensure that we are putting safe equipment into the hands of our people to operate in the field.
“Senator SHOEBRIDGE: General Jobson, you know that the 20 April report on Top Owl found that the visual acuity in the peripheral vision of a pilot using that was seriously degraded. Degrading the acuity in the peripheral vision is a particular risk to a fast-moving low flying aircraft, isn’t it?
“Major Gen. Jobson: Once again, in answer to your question, characterisations in the report that you are referring to, those characterisations are made. They then inform a subsequent process as a result of those characterisations, to further explore and assess that equipment. That is undertaken by a larger group of experts, including qualified test pilots, senior standards pilots, subject matter experts and engineers from a range of services and groups and expertise, so that Army Aviation is able to assure itself that the equipment can be brought into service in a manner that ensures that risks are minimised so far as reasonably practical.”
The full transcript is here: https://www.aph.gov.au/-/media/Estimates/fadt/supp2324/Hansards/1_Defence_251023_PROOF.pdf?la=en&hash=19F560738F7CD0709A437B403847A0940E00EB7F; particularly at pages 47 and 60.
It seems completely contradictory for the government to be hinting that the Taipans are unsafe when the Head of Army Aviation has assured the Senate just the opposite. Either the helicopters are completely fine, or they should not have been flying at night during an extremely demanding exercise in very bad weather during Talisman Sabre. You can’t have it both ways.
In any case even if the concerns of Senator Shoebridge are correct, this is still not a reason to block their transfer to Ukraine. Either the problem can be fixed – the best solution – or pilots can be made aware of the very remote possibility of a glitch occurring and be prepared and train for the possibility. As Shadow Defence Minister Andrew Hastie has explained in the context of the request from Ukraine, when you are at war your acceptance of risk is greater because you are fighting for survival.
Another feature of the government’s account totally lacking in credibility is the argument that Defence followed some sort of “process” that determined in the space of a few days that there was no international interest in acquiring the Taipan fleet. Defence processes take months – if not years – for just about everything. We know that the decision to scrap the helicopters was taken on September 28 personally by Defence Minister Marles, but the government expects us to believe that by October 18 a detailed, thorough, and structured investigation into their sale had been concluded.
No information has been supplied to back up this extraordinary claim. The package would need to include 45 helicopters – some with different engines – and all with variations in hours flown. Their electronic subsystems are extremely complex and expensive. They are supported by a raft of training devices – including full motion flight simulators worth millions of dollars – as well as spares, support equipment and documentation.
Just the task of pulling that together to define what was for sale would require a major effort. There is no evidence that anything even remotely like this has ever occurred.
If at the end of a detailed study there was still no interest in buying them, that is not a good argument for destroying them. Put them in storage and keep them as a reserve. Or, most importantly – give them to Ukraine!
It is unclear why the government is digging in its heels and stonewalling, especially with the use of misleading or blatantly false information. Defence might have temporarily succeeded in their nasty little plot to bury the Taipans, but Ministers Marles and Conroy are now in serious danger of burying their own careers.
They are doing this simply to please half a dozen senior Army officers who have waged a decade-long campaign to get rid of Taipans and replace them with the old Black Hawks they know and love from the 1980s and 90s.