Monday, May 15, 2006

Seasprite down

A friend recently asked me why the US or Australia did not deploy helicopters in Tonga after their recent 6+ magnitude earthquake. The issue for the Tongans was that many outlying, low lying islands in the group are difficult to monitor in a major disaster.

A week later, Australia was asked by the UN to deploy urgently needed helicopters in Sudan, to help the plight of the people of Dafur. Australia’s UN ambassador Robert Hill responded:

The UN was "always after air transport and helicopters", he said, but warned that Australia would find it particularly difficult to meet any requests for its Blackhawk choppers.

"We've got helicopters in Afghanistan now, but it would be quite a big decision to deploy Blackhawks to Africa,"

Effectively equipping a military force, to cover a multitude of operational needs, is always plagued with difficulties.

Helicopters seem to be one of the constant areas of difficulty. Smaller forces like Canada and Australia have been vital elements in world peace keeping. Both are constantly confounded by the problems with aging or unsuitable helicopter fleets.

The Blackhawk issues are common to all the military forces using them. AS urgently as these machines might be needed in Sudan or Tonga or in other emergencies, there are simply not the available resources to deploy.

Now the Australian navy's trouble-plagued Super Seasprite helicopter fleet has been grounded and the $1 billion program is at risk of being scrapped amid concerns the aircraft is unsafe to fly.

Nearly six years after they were due to enter service, the Seasprites, a vital anti-submarine and anti-shipping aircraft for the Navy's Anzac-class frigates, have been banned indefinitely from operational flying.

Ten of the contracted aircraft have been delivered to the navy's HMAS Albatross base at Nowra but none has been accepted into full operational service. A senior Defence source said last night that the cheapest solution was to finish the Seasprite program.

If the aircraft is scrapped as a ship-borne war-fighting machine, the Government could turn to the US Seahawk helicopter or the European NH-90, at a replacement cost of more than $1 billion.

The grounding of the Seasprites is a particular blow for the navy's 805 squadron, which has been working to train aircrew and ready the aircraft for service on the Anzac frigates. Defence sources say the squadron will now almost certainly have to be downsized.

More to the point, a blowout in the cost of maintaining a helicopter fleet must also reduce Australia’s capacity to respond to emergencies.

As I pointed out to my friend as to why Tonga wasn't given helicopter assistance, even if they cared, Australia did not have the capacity to respond to the need.

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