MELBOURNE, Australia – Bell and Boeing are positioning their respective attack helicopter offerings for Australia, which has unexpectedly kicked off an acquisition process to replace its Eurocopter Tiger helicopters.

Bell is offering its AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter, noting in a media statement that “the Bell AH-1Z is the only marinized attack helicopter in the world that is designed and built for maritime operations and is proven in operations with the United States Marines Corps.”, noting that in addition to protection against saltwater the type is designed and built from the outset to conform with shipboard operations.

Meanwhile, Boeing Australia has said it will put forward the AH-64E Apache for the Australian program, noting in a statement to Defense News that the AH-64E “is an affordable, proven and low-risk platform that meets or exceeds the Commonwealth of Australia’s capability requirements under the LAND-4503 program.”

Australia’s Capability, Acquisition and Sustainment Group or CASG had issued a Request for Information, or RFI, on July 1 for a “proven and mature, manned, off-the-shelf armed helicopter” to replace its fleet of 22 Eurocopter Tiger armed reconnaissance aircraft.

The program seeks a total of 29 helicopters for the Australian Army, with 24 helicopters for operational taskings and the remainder as training aircraft. The primary role of the chosen type would be to perform “reconnaissance, attack and security operations” that include the ability to share the tactical picture of the battlespace with friendly elements and force commanders.

Key requirements in the Australian RFI include its ability to support Australia’s growing amphibious capabilities, including the ability to operate onboard its Canberra-class amphibious assault ships for “extended periods of time.”

Other requirements that respondents to the RFI will need to answer for are the ability of the helicopter’s to be transported by the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III airlifter and other transport aircraft, interoperability with unmanned aircraft systems to STANAG 4586 standards, as well as its onboard communication systems such as datalinks.

Australia wants a chosen helicopter type to be able to deliver 12 aircraft by 2025 or 2026 for an initial operating capability, with all 29 aircraft and training system to be set up so as to declare full operating capability by 2028 or 2029. The RFI is also seeking information on the availability of local industrial capability to support delivery and operation of aircraft and support systems, in line with recent efforts to boost the local defense industry.

The release of the RFI has taken observers by surprise, as it was widely expected that Australia would persist with operating its Tiger fleet for a little while longer despite initially planning in its 2016 defense white paper to seek a replacement by the middle of the next decade.

This was due to recent improvements in aircraft availability and capabilities despite its troubled history in Australian service, due in a large part to serviceability issues. Australia is also seeking a special forces support helicopter under a separate program, while its white paper also envisages a future “fast medevac” capability.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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