Paul Phelan/CAIRNS Paul Lewis/SINGAPORE

Australia's Defence Acquisition Organisation plans formally to kick off the Army's long awaited Air 87 programme with a request for proposals in May for a new fire support and reconnaissance helicopter.

The Air 87 timetable calls for potential bidders to respond within three months and a restricted invitation to tender to then be issued to a shortlist of three to five contenders by June 1999. This is subject to final Government approval for the A$1.2 billion ($845 million) programme in November 1998.

According to Australian Army Aviation deputy director Lt Col Leo O'Reilly, a contract is expected to be awarded in 2000, with delivery of the first helicopter in 2003. The Army wants enough helicopters to equip the equivalent of two squadrons and a training unit. The final number will be determined by the mission capabilities and life cycle costs of individual competing types.

Industry sources anticipate that 25 to 40 helicopters will be needed to provide a single-type replacement for the Army's fleet of 35 Bell 206B-1 Kiowa observation machines and 28 UH-1H Iroquois gunships.

There is a longer term requirement for additional machines to equip a further two army units, along with new battlefield air mobility helicopters. The requirement for this, however, was recently separated out from the Air 87 project . The Army is believed to favour a tandem seat solution for the fire support and reconnaissance missions. The aircraft must have a secondary capability to carry precision guided air to surface weapons.

Leading contenders for the contract consist of the LHTEC T800-powered Agusta 129 Mangusta, the four bladed Bell AH-1W Cobra, Boeing AH-64D Longbow Apache, Denel CSH-2 Rooivalk and the HAP armed escort version of the Eurocopter Tiger, which crashed during a recent in-country demonstration tour.

Rolls-Royce is also seeking to interest the Australian Army in a RTM322-powered version of the Apache, adopted by the British Army, as an alternative to the basic General Electric T700 powered versions. Similar proposals have been made to Singapore for its anti-tank helicopter requirement.

Other helicopters in contention are expected to include armed versions of the Sikorsky MH-60K Black Hawk and Kaman SH-2G Super Seasprite.

Australia is expected to specify an in-country support capability for critical systems. Competing suppliers have already opened discussions with potential Australian teaming partners, with interest primarily focused on ADI, Boeing Australia, British Aerospace Australia, BTR-owned Hawker Pacific and Tenex Defence Systems.

Source: Flight International