The Australian Army is to opt for a dedicated fire-support and reconnaissance helicopter over a multi-purpose platform and expects to issue an invitation to register (ITR) shortly to contending manufacturers, following approval of its Air 87 project.

After several years of delay and deliberation, Australia's key Defence Capabilities Committee (DCC) gave the A$1.2 billion ($863 million) Air 87 project the go-ahead on 4 November. The Army hopes to secure initial funding for evaluation in the next defence budget and to issue a formal request for tender by mid-1999.

The decision to focus the Air 87 programme solely around an attack/scout requirement is expected to narrow the response to the ITR to purpose-built types. The Army had been weighing up adding a troop-carrying capability for enhanced battlefield air mobility, which would have opened up the programme to other competing multi-role designs.

It has been decided to treat air mobility as a separate requirement to the Air 87 programme, although it could still have a bearing on the final type selection. "We will instead be looking for potential commonality with a either an upgraded Sikorsky Black Hawk or future replacement troop-carrying helicopter," says an officer within the Air 87 programme office.

Army officials have stressed that it is not looking to replace its Bell 206B-1 Kiowas with an anti-tank helicopter, but wants rather an armed machine equipped with all-weather day and night sensors. DCC approval also covers the acquisition of "air-to-ground precision-guided missiles".

The competition is expected to come down to a choice between the Agusta 129 Mangusta, the improved four-bladed Bell AH-1W Cobra, Boeing AH-64 Apache, Denel CSH-2 Rooivalk and the French HAP armed-escort variant of the Eurocopter Tiger. The latter is to undertake a two-week demonstration tour of Australia early in 1998.

Although Air 87 now appears to favour a tandem-seat design, Sikorsky is still likely to pitch the MH-60K Black Hawk, stressing platform commonality with the Australian Army Aviation's fleet of UH-60s. Kaman has also unveiled plans for an armed-reconnaissance version of its SH-2G Super Seasprite shipboard helicopter, recently selected for the Royal Australian Navy.

As with the Royal Australian Air Force's earlier lead-in fighter competition, the final number of helicopters ordered will be determined by each supplier's ability to meet the mission requirements and life-cycle costs. It is anticipated that between 30 and 40 machines will be procured, starting in 2002.

Source: Flight International