TWO RECENT major training exercises in Central Queensland have demonstrated the expanded capabilities of the Australian Army Aviation Corps (AAAvn) as it continues its transition from legacy platforms to the modern digital helicopters in service today.
The two exercises, the landfocused Exercise Hamel and the amphibious Sea Series Exercise, were integrated together in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA), near Rockhampton, in June and July. During the activities, the AAAvn concurrently generated two task groups of helicopters, each made up of diferent types and from diferent units.
Task Group Griin operated ashore in the SWBTA in support of the Army’s land forces during Exercise Hamel and was made up of Eurocopter Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters (ARH) and NHI MRH-90 Taipan battleield airlift helicopters from Army’s 1st and 5th Aviation Regiments (Avn Regts).
The Sea Series Exercise was designed to trial the Australian Defence Force’s developing amphibious capability and in support of this, the 5th Avn Regt embarked an Aviation Combat Element (ACE) aboard the Navy’s 27,000-tonne Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ship, HMAS Canberra.
The ACE was made up of MRH-90s and Boeing CH-47F medium-lift helicopters and the exercise marked the first time two diferent helicopter types had operated together as part of an ACE construct, as Australia works towards a fully operational amphibious capability.
On the other side of the ledger, the Kiowa and Black Hawk will soon leave service after many years of dependable operations. The former has been replaced in the training role by the Airbus Helicopters EC135 T2+, which is operated in a joint Army/Navy organisation under the Helicopter Aircrew Training System (HATS) that began training candidates from both services early in 2018 (see ‘Hats in the air’ AIR International, April 2018, p56). The inal Kiowas are due to retire in late 2018.
The retirement of the Black Hawk had previously been deferred due to further developmental work required for the Taipan to take on the counterterrorism role, but it will begin leaving service in 2019, after more than 30 years of operational service with the Australian Defence Force.
Army Aviation overview
The AAAvn is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018 and it has come a long way from its inception during the war in Vietnam. Even as recently as the turn of the century, the most advanced sensor it could ield was a pair of gyro-stabilised binoculars, but today it can boast three of the most advanced and capable digitised rotary-wing platforms in the world, in the shape of Chinook, MRH-90 and Tiger.
Army Aviation units fall under the command of the 16th Aviation Brigade, headquartered at Enoggera, Brisbane, which was formed in 2002 following the amalgamation of the Army’s Aviation Support Group and the Aviation Unit within the 1st Division.
The Brigade oversees the 1st, 5th and 6th Avn Regts, based in Darwin, Townsville and at Holsworthy respectively.
The 1st Avn Regt is the parent unit of the Army’s armed reconnaissance squadrons, 161 and 162 Squadron, equipped with the Tiger ARH. The 5th Avn Regt oversees A & B Squadrons, equipped with the MRH-90, and C Squadron, which lies the CH-47F Chinook.
The 6th Avn Regt currently oversees the domestic counterterrorism and training operations of 171 and 173 Squadrons, both of which currently ly the Black Hawk. When conversion to the Taipan is completed in the 2022-2023 timeframe, 171 Squadron will operate the new helicopter operationally and 173 Squadron (the training unit) will form the basis of a training and development squadron.
Army and Navy helicopter training is now being undertaken with the joint HATS training unit, as part of the latter’s 723 Squadron at HMAS Albatross (Nowra), under the HATS programme. After completion of basic rotary-wing training at Nowra, Army Aviators then progress to the School of Army Aviation, located at the Army Aviation Training Centre at Oakey, for role training.
Although not solely part of the Army Aviation construct, instead commanded by the 6th Combat Support Brigade, the Australian Army is also a signiicant operator of UAS, operating two batteries of Textron Systems RQ-7B Shadow 200 tactical UAS lown by the 20th Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment. At unit level, Army troops also make extensive use of hand-held small and nano UAS systems.
The roadmap for Army Aviation’s journey towards amphibious operations is the multi-stage Amphibious Capability Realisation Plan, known as Plan Kestrel, and the operations during the Sea Series Exercise marked the latest milestone towards the ultimate goal of being able to generate a multi-type ACE underneath a Regimental Headquarters structure.
The ACE aboard HMAS Canberra in June and July marked the achievement of the seventh capability milestone of the ten broad increments mapped out under Plan Kestrel. Looking to the immediate future, the Tiger ARH recommenced first of class light trials aboard one of the two LHDs in September 2018, with a view to the embarkation of an ACE made up of all three of Army’s digital combat helicopters in the middle of 2019.
Brigadier Scott Benbow, Director General of Army Aviation at Army Forces Command, says the first steps undertaken under Plan Kestrel were to prove the capability of moving helicopters around the deck of the LHD and performing simple maintenance tasks while the ship was alongside. He notes that the capability has incrementally grown over the past three or four years, to the point where this year, for the first time, Chinook and MRH-90 helicopters formed a combined ACE.
Brigadier Benbow said: “That realisation has been deliberately slow and steady, but once the two LHDs completed their sea trials we really started kicking on from 2015 onwards. What we’ve seen since then is a more rapid acceleration of the rotary-wing integration with the ships, to the point where we have had what I would categorise as outstanding success in the last two years … This has now come to the point where we demonstrated Army Aviation Capability Increment Seven during Sea Series, which is the level at which we are now conducting multi-ship, multiaircraft and multi-spot operations of the LHD.”
The remaining three increments of Plan Kestrel are planned for completion by the end of 2019, following Exercise Talisman Sabre 19, a bilateral Australia- United States amphibious training exercise to be held in the SWBTA. During the exercise, Australia’s Amphibious Task Group will be operating alongside a US Navy and Marine Corps Amphibious Readiness Group.
Brigadier Benbow says: “The inal step for us will be the integration of the Tiger into the combat system. Much of the first of class trials work for it has already been done … It will then be integrated into the collective training plan for both the ship and the other aviation systems next year and we plan to have it fully integrated into the amphibious combat system by the end of 2019.”
Sea Series Exercise 2018
One of the major elements of the amphibious component of Sea Series 2018 was the integration of the CH-47F into the ACE. Previous amphibious exercises have been carried out with just the MRH-90 making up the shipboard aviation element, but veriication of the maturity of the Chinook Capability alongside the already mature Taipan was a major goal.
During the exercise, the ACE operated from both the deck of HMAS Canberra and the Navy’s Landing Ship Dock HMAS Choules, under the command of the Commanding Oicer of the 5th Avn Regt, Lieutenant Colonel Kim Gilillan.
Lt Col Gilillan says: “We focused on the CH-47F and MRH-90 integration aboard HMAS Canberra and, although we had already conducted Chinook first of class light trials on the LHD in late 2016 and with Choules earlier this year, this was the first time we had embarked a multi-type Aviation Combat Element.”
Effort began on integrating the Chinook several weeks prior to the exercise with a work-up period aboard HMAS Canberra designed to identify and remediate problems as they arose. The efort was led by the C Squadron of the 5th Avn Regt, but they were was also assisted by the Navy and the Defence Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG).
Lt Col Gilillan comments: “Our objective for the exercise was to operate three MRH-90s and one Chinook concurrently, but we actually managed to achieve concurrent operations of four Taipans and one Chinook, so we exceeded our expectations for this year and we have well and truly set the conditions for an embarked Aviation Combat Element in 12 months that will incorporate all three combat helicopter types.”
He added that the exercises conducted during Sea Series 2018 were conducted by both day and night: “All of the major tactical operations were conducted at night, so from my point of view we have really proved that we can perform a complex aviation activity from the ship. Operating to the ship requires a deep level of integration and synchronisation with the ship itself and, in particular, with the Air Division onboard. It would be impossible if we didn’t have the 100% support of the Navy, the ship’s captain and the Air Division to achieve that effect.”
Task Group Griin
Under the command of the Darwin-based 1st Avn Regt, Task Group Griin lew missions from within the SWBTA in support of the biennial Exercise Hamel, the Australian Army’s Major land force exercise.
This dimension of the exercise included Tiger and Taipan helicopters operating as a single task force underneath the Regimental Headquarters and it is also a major demonstration of Army Aviation capabilities.
The capability demonstrated ashore by Task Force Griin is not new, however. Last year during the Talisman Sabre 2017 exercise in the SWBTA, Army’s 5th Avn Regt led a combined multinational task force that included 36 aircraft – both ixed and rotary-wing platforms – and UAS. A total of seven diferent aircraft from the Australian and US Armies and New Zealand Defence Force took part in the activity.
This experience will provide the basis for multinational ACE constructs during operations with Australia’s partners and allies.
The Australian Army has recently introduced the CH-47F Chinook into service, having previously operated the CH-47D for many years. The leet of ten helicopters is operated by C Squadron, 5 Avn Regt, based at Townsville, and the Regiment’s familiarity with the older model has largely eased its introduction into service.
Although the two variants share the same engines and drive train, the CH-47F is a much more advanced platform, having a digital avionics suite, Digital Advanced Flight Control System and a rotor brake system, which is important for rotary-wing operations from the deck of a ship.
Brigadier Steve Jobson, Commander of the 16th Aviation Brigade, says the CH-47F is now maturing well in service and the 5th Avn Regt has recently deployed the helicopter to Papua New Guinea in support of Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief operations.
He says: “We deployed three aircraft to Mt Hagen in March, 2018, to support earthquake relief operations in the PNG Highlands. We deployed at very short notice and the three Chinooks demonstrated very high levels of performance and reliability … The CH-47F has also completed first of class light trials on all of Navy’s major amphibious warighting vessels and this has set the scene for where it is today: a fully amphibious-capable platform in service with the [Australian Defence Force].”
While it is no secret that the MRH- 90 has had a diicult entry into service with the Australian Defence Force, the helicopter is now performing very well, following a signiicant efort by Army, CASG and industry to improve its rate of efort and markedly lower its maintenance burden.
Brigadier Jobson says the helicopter has matured to the point where it is now enjoying levels of performance and reliability that are the envy of other operators around the world.
He explains: “The MRH-90’s rate of efort in the 5th Aviation Regiment has doubled over the last 18 months and the maintenance man-hours per light hour has halved. We are seeing a much greater level of maturity and health and that has given us a great deal of conidence, so we can now progress this combat system into the 6th Aviation Regiment.”
The immaturity of the Taipan, together with a number of rolespeciic deiciencies, has held up the replacement of the Black Hawk in the counterterrorism role conducted by 6 Avn Regt, but the vast increase in rate of efort and modiications to the helicopter’s fast roping capability and revised general-purpose machine gun mount has now cleared the way for its introduction this year.
Brigadier Jobson adds: “The MRH-90’s range of highly advanced, digitised systems, ofers levels of situational awareness and force protection, together with levels of reduced exposure for our men and women in an increasingly complex battlespace.
“It now ofers much increased levels of reliability and performance and it will be an outstanding platform in support of Australia’s domestic counterterrorism and special operations forces.”
Lieutenant Colonel Kim Gilillan, CO of the 5th Avn Regt and a qualiied MRH-90 pilot himself, adds: “The MRH-90 is by far the most capable helicopter I’ve lown, and I’ve lown the Tiger, the Kiowa and the Lynx with the British Army. It’s diicult to make direct comparisons but I think this is a fantastically capable helicopter … It can ly further, faster and in more adverse weather conditions, with an excellent communications suite and very high levels of situational awareness for the crew. Its cabin is also of a shape and size that it enables rapid re-rolling between air assault and combat recovery missions.”
The Tiger has also had a long and very diicult entry into service over more than a decade and it has been the subject of a great deal of criticism, but, like the MRH-90, recent remediation eforts have delivered a capability that is respected by the ground forces it supports.
As Lt Col Gilillan, also an ex ARH Squadron Commanding Oicer, explains: “In my view, Tiger is a massive advance on anything we’ve had before and it is an incredible capability for Australia to have. Any advanced helicopter is a complex system and my observation is that Tiger is at the very least the equal of any other advanced attack helicopter system … It is tempting for people to say that other systems are better, but relatively, we ly Tiger a higher number of hours per airframe, per year, than the US Army lies its Apache leet.”
Perhaps the inal word on Tiger’s capabilities should be left to Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, the recently retired Chief of Defence Force. ACM Binskin is a former F/A- 18A Hornet pilot with the RAAF and before that he lew A-4G Skyhawks with the Royal Australian Navy, including operations of the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. Looking back on his career, ACM Binskin said he was envious of Army Aviation’s ARH pilots.
He says: “I’m proud of the fact that I served in the Navy as well as the Air Force, but except for some of the Army Aviation capabilities, it probably wasn’t the service for me … I would have liked to have lown the Tiger; it’s a very capable machine.”
Special Operations Helicopter
The 2016 Australian Defence White Paper and associated Industry Investment Programme identiied the requirement for a light helicopter to support the Taipan in the urban counterterrorism role.
Although yet to be approved by Government, Army’s Project Land 2097 Phase 4 will see the acquisition of at least 16 helicopters for Special Operations support. A Request for Information (RFI) was released to industry at the end of September 2018 and the overall timeline calls for a Request for Tender to follow in the fourth quarter of 2019 and deliveries to begin in the 2022 timeframe.
Although the size of the proposed helicopter was not speciied in the RFI, previous correspondence with industry has identiied a machine in the 4-tonne class. The RFIitself calls for a helicopter that is optimised for urban operations and able to be rapidly deployed by the Royal Australian Air Force’s C-17A Globemaster III leet. Four helicopters and any removed components are required to uplifted by one C-17A.
Other requirements include the ability to carry two pilots and four personnel seated on the cabin loor (cabin seats are an option) and capability to accommodate a fast roping system. The helicopter is also to be capable of having simple electro-optic systems and weapons installed.
The primary role will be air assault, performed by small teams of Special Forces soldiers, with secondary roles including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, ire support and general utility. The helicopter is also required to be capable of rapid reconiguration between these roles.
The aircraft will be operated by Army Aviation’s 6th Avn Regt, based at Holsworthy, but consideration is being given to maintaining a permanent detachment of four helicopters (referred to in the RFIas an ‘Independent Detachment) at a yet-to-be-decided location.
The number of helicopters required is not speciied in the documentation, but will be suicient to have four aircraft on line at Holsworthy, another four at the Independent Detachment and two lights of four helicopters capable of simultaneous deployment to two locations, at any given time.
Likely contenders include Airbus Helicopters (with the H145M), Bell (Bell 407GT), Boeing (AH-6i Little Bird), Leonardo (AW109 Trekker), MD Helicopters (MD530F Cayuse Warrior or MD530G) and Northstar Aviation (Bell 407MRH Lightning).