01 Sep 2017
Replacing the Tiger
Australia’s fleet of 22 ‘Aussie Tiger’ armed reconnaissance helicopters are grounded following a devastating crash of a German Air Force Tiger in West Africa earlier this month. The grounding marks the latest round of troubles facing the Aussie Tiger since the decision was made to acquire the aircraft in December 2001. The 2016 Defence White Paper has already declared that the aircraft will be replaced in the mid-2020s, and Army is not challenging this decision. Given the latest troubles, there is a strong case for accelerating the Aussie Tiger replacement, rather than leaving it until the mid-2020s.
The Boeing AH-64E Apache and the Bell AH-1Z Viper are obvious contenders. These are mature, tried and tested platforms in daily operational use by a wide variety of operators – very different from the highly developmental Tiger that is used by only a small number of countries. Either platform could be acquired relatively quickly and introduced into operational service rapidly.
Besides Apache and Viper, Eurocopter is developing a Mk 3 Tiger, which Australia could consider, and South Africa’s Rooivalk and Italy’s Mangusta helicopters also could enter any competition. But a key factor would be interoperability with the US, and other partners, including the UK, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and South Korea. All operate the AH-64E Apache, or variants of this aircraft.
Whatever the outcome, we need to learn the lessons of the Aussie Tiger experience. The platform we acquire must be a mature capability with minimal investment risk and have high operational readiness. It must be reasonable in cost, both in terms of purchase and operating cost. It must be operationally effective against complex 21st Century battlefield threats. It must have an extensive support network, and it must be a platform that can evolve with changing technology.
One of the most important developments in the next decade will be the growth of unmanned autonomous systems (UAS) over the battlespace. Australia is set to acquire armed UAVs under AIR 7003, but platforms like Reaper represent the beginning of dramatic shifts in how future war is fought. The development of much more sophisticated armed UAVs to support ground forces is on the way.
The future will see systems like Northrop Grumman’s ‘TERN’ and Bell’s ‘V-247 Vigilant’ tilt-rotor armed UAV emerge by the mid-2020s. Northrop Grumman’s ‘FireScout’ vertical take-off UAV is flying now, and is already under consideration for operating off Navy’s surface combatants.
Any replacement for the Aussie Tiger should as a priority have the ability to integrate with, and control current and next generation armed UAVs over the Battlespace. Certainly the Boeing AH-64E has this capability already, with ‘manned-unmanned teaming’ (‘MUM-T’), so the Bell AH-1Z Viper, as well as other contenders, mentioned above, need to offer this as well. This should be seen as a critical requirement for any future capability, given the operational potential that advanced UAVs will offer.
We also need to think how we’ll use this next platform. Army operations in the 21st Century could range from low-risk peace support and humanitarian assistance in the South Pacific, to high-risk combat operations in support of coalition partners across Asia or in the Middle East. So a future capability must be flexible enough to meet all of these contingencies, and be highly deployable, including an ability to operate from Navy’s Canberra class LHDs. Furthermore, the complexity of the 21st Century ‘contested and congested’ battlespace is growing. There is a proliferation of advanced capabilities to a broader range of threats. Army must be prepared for a tougher operational environment. A light capability makes less sense in this future.
Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst, defence strategy and capability, at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.