Australia adds MRH90 helicopter to Projects of Concern list

Singapore
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The Australian government has added the NH Industries MRH90 transport helicopter to its Projects of Concern list, with the acquisition to undergo a major review this month.

MRH90s on order for both the Australian navy and army are behind schedule, with the maritime version delayed by 12 months and the army's by 18 months, say minister for defence Stephen Smith and minister for defence materiel Jason Clare.

The troubled helicopter programme will now undergo a "high-level comprehensive diagnostic review".

"Delays are due to a series of key issues, including engine failure, transmission oil-cooler fan failures and the poor availability of spares," says the Department of Defence.

Australia has ordered 46 MRH90s to replace its army's Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks and the navy's Westland Sea Kings. Canberra has so far accepted 13 MRH90s, which are being used for testing and initial crew training.

 
© Sgt Rob Mitchell/Commonwealth of Australia

Smith says external specialists will support the review, which will "provide recommendations to the government on the actions necessary to fully implement this important project".

The programme suffered a major slip in 2010 following a 20 April incident in which one of an MRH90's two Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM322 engines failed. Although the aircraft landed safely, the fleet was grounded for three months pending an investigation by the DoD and industry.

Completed last July, the investigation discovered that the failure resulted from the compressor blades fracturing after coming into contact with the engine casing. The DoD established a new inspection regime and other measures to prevent another such incident.

Eurocopter chief executive Lutz Bertling personally wrote to the Australian government to "directly refute any suggestion that engine damage was caused by improper handling of the aircraft by Australian Defence Force pilots".

Eurocopter, the majority shareholder in the NHI consortium, is also leading a bid to sell the NH90 naval helicopter to Australia. It stresses the 80% commonality in avionics and airframe between the NH90 and MRH90 as an advantage in the 24-aircraft competition, where it is up against the Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk.

The objective of Australia's Projects of Concern list is to help the DoD and industry focus on resolving issues such as significant challenges in scheduling, cost, capability delivery or project management.

Several other high profile defence aerospace projects are on the list, including the Boeing 737 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft, the Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport, the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 joint air-to-surface standoff missile, and an electronic support measures upgrade for the air force's Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orions.