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Australia cuts short Echidna upgrade to Black Hawk fleet

Australia's Department of Defence has cut short the scope of a project to provide electronic warfare self-protection suites for its army's fleet of Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

Canberra will complete modifications to 12 Black Hawks to "provide a basic level of electronic warfare self protection", but will not go ahead with an advanced equipment suite that includes the BAE Systems Australia ALR-2002 radar warning receiver.

"Defence has reassessed the operational requirement and has determined that the fitting of additional electronic warfare self protection capabilities would have an adverse effect on aircraft availability," says Greg Combet, minister for defence personnel, materiel and science. "Black Hawk helicopters are currently being utilised for a wide variety of roles for the ADF [Australian Defence Force] and it is vital that they continue to be available to fulfil these roles."

Combet adds that the "return on investment involved in completing, installing and sustaining the advanced electronic warfare suite would not be justified, given the remaining life of the Black Hawk fleet". The decision will save Canberra A$50 million ($43.8 million), he says.

The upgrades were part of Project Air 5416 - Project Echidna, in which Australia awarded a A$135 million contract to BAE Systems in 2005 to design, develop, integrate and install electronic warfare self-protection capability for the army's Black Hawk and Boeing CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters.

This followed a A$25 million contract to Tenix Defence for the integration and installation of electronic warfare self-protection capability to the Royal Australian Air Force's Lockheed Martin C-130H tactical transports.

"Project Echidna has already enhanced the survivability and protection of the Australian Chinook fleet for operations in Afghanistan. This has included fitting warning systems coupled to flare dispensers to counter heat-seeking missiles and ballistic protection against direct fire weapons," says Combet.

"The 12 Black Hawks to be fitted will have similar levels of electronic warfare self protection and ballistic protection. Five aircraft have been modified and the remaining seven will be completed before mid-2010."

Combet adds that BAE Systems had met all expectations of the programme, and says the skills, capabilities and technology gained over the last four years will benefit both the company and Australia.

"The C-130H modification programme, the equipment fitted to Chinooks for operations, and an equivalent capability currently being fitted to some Black Hawks, has markedly increased the knowledge and capability of the ADF and Australian industry in the complex and sensitive area of aircraft electronic warfare self protection," he says.

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