LONDON — In the lead up to the 2017 Paris Air Show, European giant Airbus has revealed details of its two-stage proposal to upgrade the Australian Army's Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopter.

The managing director of Airbus Group Australia Pacific, Tony Fraser, said Airbus Helicopters is proposing an interim upgrade based on the Tiger Mark 2 development being mulled by European operators, including France. Beyond that, Fraser says a Mark 3 variant now on the drawing board will form the basis of a future armed reconnaissance helicopter, or ARH, replacement program flagged by the Australian government for the middle of the next decade.

Australia has 22 Tigers and was to undertake an extensive capability assurance program, or CAP, to keep the fleet relevant in the coming years. However, the ARH program has been mired in controversy since the first helicopters were delivered at the end of 2004, suffering a lower-than-expected rate of effort and a higher-than-desired cost of ownership to the commonwealth.

Australia's 2016 Defence White Paper and the associated Integrated Investment Program singled the helicopter out from all Australian Defence Force platforms for criticism, describing the program as "troubled."

Most recently, a 2017 report by the Australian National Audit Office, or ANAO, into the ARH program was scathing of the helicopter, which only achieved final operational capability last year, despite being in operational service for more than a decade.

The program is now seven years late, and although it hasn't reached planned levels of availability and reliability, recent remediation efforts by the Australian Army; the Defence Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group of Australia's Defence Department, or CASG; and industry continue to improve performance indicators to the point where the Tiger's cost of ownership has dropped by almost a third since 2012.

"There is still work to do, we've still got improvements to make and we're not shying away from that, but we are pleased with the progress that has been made," Fraser said. "We think Tiger is now performing well."

Maj. Gen. Andrew Mathewson, the head of CASG's Helicopter Systems Division agrees the Tiger is making good progress and notes support from industry has made significant improvements to availability and reliability. However, he said the ANAO report focused specifically on aspects of the program that have not progressed well.

"The Australian fleet is by far the most mature of all Tiger operators across the world, in terms of its configuration and performance and the rate of effort we're achieving, and I should note that all of those nations have taken the Tiger on operations in Afghanistan," he said. "The French have taken their Tigers to Afghanistan and Libya, and they currently operate it in Mali. So it is a bit perplexing to look at the criticism it receives here in Australia when other nations are making the same products — in lesser configuration — perform on operations in a very effective way."

With respect to the ANAO report, which cited 76 perceived deficiencies — some of them described as critical — Mathewson said that many are not deficiencies of the original specification but rather opportunities for future upgrade work.

"I would be comfortable with the ANAO pointing out that there are opportunities to improve the product, but it was not made clear in the way the report was framed that these are future upgrades," he said.

Fraser added: "We acknowledge that the rate of effort and the time it has taken to get where it needed to be were areas we were deficient in. But to criticize us for (not having) future capabilities we think is a flawed argument

"We are not buying something against a futures requirement and then measuring it against that, which the ANAO report seemed to do."

Under the original terms of the CAP, defense plans called for either an upgrade or replacement of the ARH, but the Integrated Investment Program  now calls for a scaled-back CAP to be undertaken between 2017 and 2026, followed by the ARH replacement project between 2021 and 2031.

"We are of the view that the Tiger is the right aircraft for Defence [Department forces] as an armed reconnaissance helicopter, and Airbus will continue to invest in it and continue to push the capability," Fraser said.

"The French Direction Générale de l'Armement (DGA) is driving the capability requirements for Tiger midlife upgrades in Europe. For the Australian CAP, we are working with DGA to make sure we're in step. Australia's desire is to have the risks mitigated (and) fully understood, and we're in discussions with [the] Defence [Department] on that at the moment."

DGA is the French government's procurement agency.

Fraser added that Australia's requirements are sovereign and not dependent upon European needs, and that the immediate focus is to improve performance and availability and upgrade the helicopter's sensors.

"It is a work in progress between the commonwealth and ourselves," he added. "For Australia, the CAP is more aligned to the Mark 2 work, retaining the Tiger airframe but improving the on-board systems and sensors."

U.S. companies have been quick to offer alternatives for the replacement program. Boeing recently displayed its AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopter at the Avalon International Airshow. However, Mathewson says the Tiger is also a potential replacement for itself.

"We have to take into consideration Airbus' past performance on the Tiger and MRH90 Taipan helicopter programs, but I'm buoyed with their progress in remediating these programs," he said. "That remediation will influence the decisions made somewhere between 2022 and 2023 around Tiger's replacement.

"That gives Airbus quite a good number of years to continue to deliver the capability that they are contracted to deliver and continue to improve the performance of their product."

Nigel Pittaway is the Australia correspondent for Defense News.

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