The decision to discard the Airbus Helicopters/Eurocopter EC-665 Tiger-ARH (Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter) gunship announced in the Australian government’s Defence White Paper this February has left questions about the future of rotary attack in the country’s arsenal.
The EC-665ARH attack helicopter programme can be seen as both a success and a partial failure. The success is that four nations, Australia, France, Germany and Spain, eventually fielded a newly-designed, complex attack helicopter conceived in Europe. Its drawback has been a painfully long fielding process to get all of the versions of the platform operated by the nations above up to full operational capability, something that one of the partners, Australia, has now admitted it is unlikely to achieve to its satisfaction in the form originally envisaged when it was selected. It has now declared that its EC-665ARH usage will be terminated despite a proposed Mid-Life Update (MLU) which should come into effect in the mid-2020s.
For a customer to be unwilling to go forward on the MLU, bearing in mind that this was a helicopter that began to be delivered to both the French and Germany customers in March and April 2005 respectively, and to the Australians in December 2004, points to a serious breakdown in manufacturer-customer understanding and support, or a failure of procurement rigour, or both. The fact that the Australian Defence Force (ADF, which includes the country’s navy, army and air force) has continually complained that it has been at the end of ‘a very long screwdriver’ has not helped.
The 2016 Defence White Paper, issued by the Australian government on 25 February 2016, does not detail the reasons behind the decision but revealed that it would “replace the 22 Tiger Armed Reconnaissance helicopters with a new armed reconnaissance capability from the mid-2020s.” Australia has done this before, with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) eventually rejecting the Kaman SH-2G Seasprite naval support helicopter order in 2011. However, that programme did not advance as far as the Australian Army EC-665ARH programme has.
By no longer having to invest a planned $1-2 billion into the EC-665ARH MLU, which was set out in the original capability document known as the AIR 87 Phase 3 Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter Capability Assurance Programme (ARH CAP), will go towards a new fleet of light reconnaissance/attack helicopters, as yet still to be identified. In a move of extraordinary insight considering what was later released, Bell Helicopter signed an agreement with BAE Systems during the Singapore Air Show to, as Lisa Atherton, executive vice president of military business for Bell Helicopter explained, “establish the groundwork … for future customers of Bell Helicopter military rotorcraft in Australia.” That now places its AH-1Z Viper gunship firmly in the frame as a replacement, although the reference to ‘light’ in the White Paper might also let in other potential candidates such as Boeing’s AH-6i Little Bird, MD Helicopters MD530G and perhaps even another Airbus Helicopter such as the H-135M or H-145M which are light, armed military variants of civil helicopters (the H-135 has already been selected as the Royal Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy training helicopter).
With Australia now almost certainly out of any major investment in the Tiger MLU, Airbus Helicopters will still go ahead with the ambition of upgrading the EC-665UHT/HAD Tigers owned by France, Germany and Spain to what has been described as the Tiger Mk.3 standard.
The project actually comes under the purview of the OCCAR (Organisation Conjointe de Coopération en matière d’Armement/Joint Armament Material Cooperation Organisation), an organisation established by the defence ministers of France, Germany, Italy and the UK on 12 October 1996 to “provide more effective and efficient arrangements for the management of certain existing and future cooperative armament programmes,” according to its mandate.
The programme was placed under OCCAR supervision when the organisation was legally activated in 2001.There were initially three versions of the EC-665 including the two French HAP (Hélicoptère d’Appui et Protection/Protection and Escort Helicopter) and HAC (Hélicoptère Anti Char/Anti-Tank Helicopter) variants and the German EC-665UHT (Unterstützungshubschrauber/Support Helicopter) version. When Spain joined in 2004 it added a new version, the HAD (Helicóptero de Ataque y Destrucción/Attack and Destruction Helicopter). Australia’s own version and membership was formalised in 2009.
In July 2015, OCCAR took the lead in an architecture study of the EC-665 on behalf of France, Germany and Spain. In a contract with Airbus Helicopters, it will be responsible for defining the potential improvements which would frame the work required to produce the Tiger Mk.3 specifications.
This through-life management strategy is being applied to the EC-665 family so that it will remain “at the cutting edge of attack helicopters in the world over the next decades.” OCCAR describes the process as evolving an MLU roadmap which will include “promising new features and improvements” to enhance the current versions of the attack helicopter, particularly in terms of life cycle costs, planned maintenance and survivability. It is developing an initial research framework founded on the existing perceived requirements suggested by all of the existing EC-665 operators.
It will learn from the lessons gained from the operational deployment (which have included French and German deployments of the aircraft to support North Atlantic Treaty Organisation- and US-led combat operations in Afghanistan and Libya respectively) of the EC-665 by its operators, and will study technologies that would take the platform forward in its capability. The result will then be placed before the military customers from France, Germany and Spain to allow them to select “which combinations of equipment, functions, performances and architectures should be selected.” Whether there will be a joint agreement on this will be interesting to note, as will the capacity of Airbus Helicopters to deliver nation-specific packages should they be required.
The AH-1Z is already being fielded to the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and will be in production until 2021 at current estimates. As the AH-1Z is already marinised it would be immediately better suited to naval/littoral deployments than the EC-665 which is not at the same level of marinisation. Due to its service with the USMC, the AH-1Z is corrosion resistant and its engines, General Electric GE T700 turboshafts are the same as those used by the Sikorsky MH-60R naval support helicopters which are currently being introduced into service with the Royal Australian Navy. It can also be equipped with folding blades (it now has four-bladed main and tail rotors) and its systems are shielded from electromagnetic interference.
The AH-1Z’s armament would certainly provide enough firepower: a General Dynamics M197 20mm three-barrelled Gatling cannon with a 750-round magazine, and up to six pylons on the stub wings to carry guided or unguided rockets, up to 16 laser guided Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire family Air-to-Surface Missiles (ASMs) and even wing tip points for a pair of Raytheon AIM-9 Sidewinder family air-to-air missiles.
As part of the US Department of Defense (US DoD) 2016 budget, Bell Helicopter was recently awarded an additional $461 million for the delivery of 16 Lot 13 AH-1Z Vipers and 12 Lot 13 Bell Helicopters UH-1Y Venom light utility helicopters together with auxiliary fuel kits. The 2017 US DoD budget proposal notes an intent to accelerate “the procurement of the final 78 AH-1Z-1/UH-1Y helicopters.” There will eventually be 189 AH-1Zs in the US Marine Corps.
In 2017 the US Navy will begin the procurement of two new missiles. One of these, the multi-service Lockheed Martin Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM), will be included in the AH-1Z’s range of weaponry. This air-to-surface missile has been developed to replace a range of current ASMs, specifically the Raytheon BGM-71 and AGM-65 Maverick missiles, as well as the AGM-114 Hellfire.
Two other potential alternatives for a new Australian ‘armed reconnaissance capability’ include Boeing’s AH-6i and MD Helicopters’ MD 530G light reconnaissance rotorcraft; six of the latter were recently acquired by Malaysian Army Aviation.
The AH-6S was primarily developed by Boeing for the now defunct Armed Aerial Scout (AAS) programme and was demonstrated to the US Army for that requirement in October 2012. Since the programme’s demise, Boeing has positioned it as the AH-6i (international) for export but it has been slow to attract orders. The Jordanian Army was interested and received aircraft demonstrations but no firm order was forthcoming. The first publicly-acknowledged customer is the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) which has ordered 36 AH-6is, 24 likely to be delivered this year. The order was announced through the US DoD contracts bulletin on 29 August 2014. It stated that Boeing had been awarded the $234 million Foreign Military Sales (FMS) contract for the production and delivery of 24 AH-6I aircraft, initial spares package and ground support equipment.
The AH-6i is a more complex small helicopter than it first appears. Mike Burke, ex-director of attack helicopter business development at Boeing was often heard to announce, “When the AH-6i wakes up in the morning, it thinks it’s an Apache.” It does have commonalities with the company’s AH-64E Guardian gunship as well as with the MH-6M Little Bird used by the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). It has a digital cockpit, a modern mission computer that manages the onboard weapons. Its sensor is the L-3 Wescam MX-15Di EO/IR optronics system with laser rangefinder and designator. The 16th SOAR’s MH-6M is fitted with a central ‘plank’ across the airframe which allows for a combination of weapon loads, from AGM-114 ASMs and guided/unguided 2.75in rockets, through to gun pods.
The Australian Defence White Paper also made reference to the potential growth of unmanned systems within the ADF. Boeing has had an unmanned version of the AH/MH-6 Little Bird since an initial demonstration in 2004. In recent years this has been demonstrated to the Republic of Korea Army and in 2014 to the US Marine Corps at Quantico, Virginia. In the reconnaissance role, Boeing states that its mission profile would include “over-the-horizon search, re-supply, communications relay and surveillance capabilities.”
Should the Australian government like the idea of this smaller attack/reconnaissance helicopter, but in a more ‘vanilla’ form, they could take note of MD Helicopters’ recent announcement of a further order to supply six MD-530G Scout Attack Helicopters to Malaysia’s Ministry of Defence (see above), with deliveries beginning by the end of the year and completing by spring 2017.
The MD 530Gs will include a MOOG Stores Management System which is able to support up to four weapons stations which can integrate a combination of guns and missiles. These could include the Dillon Aero M-134D-H Mini-Gun, FN Herstal’s Heavy Machine Gun Pod (HMP) which houses a 12.7 mm FN Herstal M3P machine gun, an FN Herstal Rocket Machine Gun Pod (RMP) as well as an Arnold Defense M260 seven-shot rocket pod. They would be carried using the MACE Aviation Extended Range Weapons Wing (ER2W). An optronics turret, likely to be the L-3 Wescam MX-10 series sensor and laser designator can also be incorporated onto the MD-530G.
MD Helicopters owner Lynn Tilton has steered the company away from what was set to be an ignominious end before she bought the company through Patriarch Partners, an investment enterprise, in 2005. Her key move has been to gain a foothold once more in the military market which she did with FMS sales to the Afghan Air Force of the MD-530F. Six were initially sold for training but then additional orders were placed for armed variants with the latest fleet size planned to be around 30 MD-530Fs, most of which will be armed.
Finally, should the ADF still wish to replace the EC-665ARH with a ‘class-for-class’ capability, then there is always the recourse to the AH-64E which regional friendly rival Indonesia is buying. Boeing was awarded a $295 million contract to supply the Indonesia Army with eight AH-64E Apache attack helicopters with a completion date scheduled for February 28, 2018. They will also be supplied with nine Lockheed Martin Modernized Target Acquisition Designation Sight/Pilot Night Vision Sensor (M-TADS/PNVS) and well as the standard Hellfire guided missiles. For the time being at least, Australia’s decision to put its EC-665ARH machines out to pasture after such a short time seems to be provoking more questions than it answers.