Australia's recently elected Labor government has put the spotlight on the navy's troubled Kaman Super Seasprite programme once again, with defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon questioning whether upgrading the helicopter was ever viable.
Australia ordered 11 SH-2G(A) Super Seasprites in 1997, with first deliveries scheduled for 2001. The programme involved upgrading former US Navy SH-2F helicopters with new sensors and the Litton (now Northrop Grumman) Integrated Tactical Avionics System (ITAS).
But the programme has been dogged by problems, mainly involving the ITAS, which resulted in the Royal Australian Navy provisionally accepting 11 Seasprites with limited capability in 2003/4.
Delays and a problem with the automatic flight control system (AFCS) led to the navy grounding the helicopters in May 2006.
A government review resulted in a decision to continue the programme subject to "acceptable contracting arrangements for an AFCS remediation programme".
It is believed the decision was influenced by a lack of suitable alternatives, the A$1 billion ($890 million) already spent and the possibility of legal action if the programme was scrapped.
But Fitzgibbon says a number of Australia's defence acquisitions are unlikely to achieve their desired capability and are being reviewed, including the Super Seasprite.
The RAN has provisionally accepted nine of the helicopters in an interim training configuration, and two are with Kaman for flight testing. Kaman says the AFCS problem, involving an anomalous signal from an airspeed sensor, has been resolved and the ITAS software is in the final stages of formal qualification testing.
Kaman and Australia's Department of Defence have been negotiating a two-phase AFCS remediation programme. The first phase, expected to result in a return to flying for the type this year, involves software error checking of flight-performance inputs.
Phase two will involve AFCS hardware and software changes to improve its safety and reliability and bring it up to date with current airworthiness standards, says the Department. Australia does not expect all 11 Super Seasprites to have full ITAS functionality until 2010-11.
Fitzgibbon says the previous government made a number of ad-hoc decisions on force structure and capability that were not based on strategic guidance.
The new Defence White Paper, which Labor plans to release by the end of 2008, is intended to reconnect the country's strategic needs and force planning, outlining the Australian Defence Force's roles, responsibilities and structure and allowing decisions to be made on equipment, he says.
The government hopes this will allow it to avoid the delays, budget over-runs and capability issues that plagued its predecessor.