MELBOURNE, Australia – Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton announced Friday Canberra is seeking to buy up to 40 Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk battlefield helicopters to replace the Australian Defence Force’s fleet of NH Industry MRH 90 Taipan Multi Role Helicopters.

The move follows an earlier decision by the government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison to replace the Australian Army’s European Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters with U.S.-made Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters.

The MRH 90 is presently operated by the Australian Army in battlefield mobility and counter terrorism support roles and by the Royal Australian Navy in the embarked logistics helicopter role. The first of 47 MRH 90s entered service in December 2007 and was intended to replace a number of helicopter types then in service, including the Sikorsky S-70A-9 Black Hawk, Bell UH-1H Iroquois and Westland Sea King Mk.50A/B.

Ironically, the Australian Army’s older Black Hawks are only being retired this week, following delays to modifications required for the MRH 90 to meet the needs of Special Forces.

The Taipan had been expected to remain in service until at least 2037, but the fleet has suffered from poor availability and high ownership costs. It has been on the government’s projects of concern watchlist since November 2011.

Dutton said that, despite remediation efforts by Defence and industry, the MRH 90 fleet had failed to meet contracted availability and cost of ownership ahead of its planned withdrawal date.

“The performance of the MRH 90 Taipan has been an ongoing and well-documented concern for Defence and there has been a great effort at great expense to try to remediate the issues,” he said in a statement. “It is critically important that there is a safe, reliable and capable helicopter available for our service men and women into the future, with reasonable and predictable operating costs.”

Dutton did not detail a precise timeline or cost for the UH-60M acquisition, but said Australian taxpayers will save about $2.5 billion (U.S. $1.8 billion) through 2037.

“The Black Hawk is so much cheaper on a per-hour basis to run than the existing Taipan. The Taipan is unreliable, there’s a lot of money that’s spent on maintenance and a lot of downtime of our pilots and air crews who should be up training and they should be flying these helicopters, and at the moment, in many cases, they just can’t,” he said. “It’s why we need this capability sooner than later, and I’m hoping over the next couple of years we will have the new Black Hawk in service and that will be a great outcome for the ADF.”

In October, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency advised that the State Department has approved the potential sale of an additional 12 Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawks (without anti-submarine warfare equipment) to Australia. The Australian Department of Defence later confirmed the helicopters are being considered to replace the MRH 90 in the maritime support role under Project Sea 9100.

Nigel Pittaway is the Australia correspondent for Defense News.

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