Audit backs Australia's cancellation of Super Seasprite deal

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The Australian National Audit Office has published a damning report into the Department of Defence's cancelled project to acquire Kaman Aerospace SH-2G(A) Super Seasprite naval helicopters. The report identifies technical and contractual failings, plus a massive overspend.

Canberra scrapped its acquisition in February 2008, when the project was seven years late, 47% over budget and not set to deliver full functionality until 2010-11.

Expenditure had topped A$1.4 billion ($1.1 billion) by this point, the report says, highlighting what it says were over-optimistic budget estimates, low contingencies, and a failure to appreciate risks and the complexity of integration issues.

The DoD ordered 11 upgraded former US Navy SH-2Fs in 1997 under a A$746 million deal with Kaman, and had expected deliveries from 2001. But problems, primarily with the aircraft's integrated tactical avionics system (ITAS), forced it to provisionally accept nine aircraft from 2003 in an interim configuration. These were grounded by March 2006 due to automatic flight control system problems.

The report cites "a large number of deficiencies" with the aircraft, also identifying its 'rotorcraft alighting, secure and traverse system', cockpit space constraints, increased all-up weight, and below-standard crashworthiness characteristics. A deficiency review conducted in 2005 recommended that the project be cancelled, but was subsequently removed, it reveals.

The report makes seven recommendations, relating to risk, contracts, certification and processes, all of which have been accepted by the DoD.

Australia's settlement with Kaman has resulted in the helicopters, support and training equipment being returned to the manufacturer, which is seeking new buyers. The company stands by its product and activities under the project, which it says delivered "a safe and highly capable maritime helicopter". Testing of the ITAS has now been completed, it adds.

Australia is now considering the NH Industries NH90 and Sikorsky MH-60R for an urgent acquisition of at least 24 naval combat helicopters.