Australia to dump Taipan helicopters and buy Black Hawks from US amid China fears | Australian politics

Peter Dutton says buying up to 40 Black Hawk helicopters from the US sends “a very clear message to our partners and to our adversaries” that the Australian Defence Force “can make a significant contribution when we’re called on”.

The Australian defence minister explicitly referenced the “growing threat” posed by China as he announced an intention to dump the trouble-plagued MRH90 Taipan helicopters, which were originally due to be withdrawn in 2037.

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Labor reacted to the decision by branding the Morrison government as “the worst national security government in our country’s history” and defence procurement as “an absolute mess”.

Australia bought 47 of the Taipans as a replacement for the Black Hawk and Sea King helicopter fleets, but the multi-billion-dollar Howard government-era acquisition has been listed as a “project of concern” since 2011.

The entire fleet was grounded in 2019 amid serious concerns about the tail rotor blades and 27 aircraft were grounded last year to fix cabin sliding door rails.

Friday’s announcement marks the second major project scrapping on Dutton’s watch, after plans for French-designed conventional submarines were axed in September, although a major difference is that these helicopters are already in service.

The helicopters are used by the army – including to provide support to special operations – while the navy also relies on them for maritime support.

The Australian government has now formally requested advice from the US on the acquisition of up to 40 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for the Australian army “as an alternative platform to the MRH90 Taipan”.

Dutton said the Taipans had been found to be “unreliable” and the government would buy up to 40 Black Hawk helicopters.

He hoped the new ones would be in service “over the next couple of years”, adding they would not be built or designed in Australia because it was important to “achieve capability sooner than later”.

Dutton – who was recently accused of ramping up national security rhetoric for political purposes as a federal election looms – said Australia could only deter “catastrophic outcomes” from “a position of strength”.

“I’ve been very clear about what I see as a growing threat within the Indo-Pacific, and I want the Australian Defence Force to have at its disposal the most effective equipment and the most highly trained people to deal with that reality,” Dutton said.

Dutton said Japan, India, European countries and Nato were also “worried about the military buildup by the Chinese government”.

The defence minister said last month it would be “inconceivable” that Australia wouldn’t come to Taiwan’s aid if the US joined a military effort to defend the democratically governed island against an invasion by China.

That prompted a top Chinese diplomat to warn Australian politicians against “doing anything that’s destructive to our relationship”.

China has sought to portray the Aukus deal – in which the US and the UK plan to help Australia acquire at least eight nuclear-propelled submarines to be operational from about 2040 – as an “Anglo-Saxon clique”.

In another sign of Australia drawing closer to the US, Dutton acknowledged the Black Hawk was “interoperable with our counterparts and with our allies” and was “the favoured platform in the United States”.

Dutton, a significant conservative figure in government ranks who has signalled interest in leading the Liberal party when Morrison retires, foreshadowed that the government would announce “many other” defence-related decisions “in the coming months”.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, noted the helicopter decision was made by the cabinet’s entire national security committee, of which Dutton is a member.

“The Taipans weren’t meeting their marks – simple as that,” Morrison said at a media conference in Sydney.

“That’s a decision that we’ve taken together as a national security committee to ensure that we’re keeping Australians safe.”

Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, told reporters: “Defence procurement is an absolute mess and they have been in power now for eight years – it is on them.”

In a statement, Labor frontbenchers Brendan O’Connor and Pat Conroy said: “Under the Morrison-Joyce government, 25 major defence projects are running cumulatively 68 years late, meaning ADF personnel are not getting the equipment and platforms they need to do their jobs.”

Dutton played down the costs of abandoning the Taipans early, saying, “we will see savings of about two and a half billion dollars” between now and 2037 “because the Black Hawk is so much cheaper on a per hour basis to run”.

The defence department has previously estimated the total cost of the MRH90 Taipan program would be $15bn by the time the helicopters were due to be withdrawn from service in 2037, including $3.7bn for the purchase and $11.3bn to sustain them.

In October last year, defence officials conceded the door was not wide enough to enable the safe exit of personnel from the helicopter while it was firing.

The Australian National Audit Office previously found “significant implications” from the Howard government’s decision in 2004 to approve the acquisition of the MRH90 aircraft, instead of the initial defence department recommendation for Black Hawks.

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