On January 8, 2024, Acting Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite farewelled 90 Australian Defence Force personnel departing for Britain, where they will train Ukrainian soldiers.
This is the fifth ADF training rotation, providing basic infantry skills to Ukrainian new recruits preparing for the fight of their lives against Russia’s invasion. The Albanese government deserves credit for planning to provide that training at least into 2025.
Australia’s support for Ukraine so far has been solid. The government claims $910m has been spent including $730m on military support, such as 120 Bushmaster vehicles, artillery and howitzers and the current deployment of a Wedgetail airspace battle management aircraft, protecting lines of supply into Ukraine.
Supporting Ukraine, Thistlethwaite said, was a matter of “standing up to Russia’s illegal act of aggression and illegal invasion of Ukraine and most importantly … standing up to the important principles of freedom of liberty”.
But there are signs Canberra is losing interest. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has failed to reopen its embassy in Kyiv, withdrawn to Poland when the Russians attacked in February 2022. Virtually every other embassy in the Ukrainian capital has reopened.
When asked about this Thistlethwaite pointed to the obligation to “provide a safe workplace for all of our embassy staff.” In reality, we send diplomats to dangerous places all around the world.
Most mystifying of all is the government’s refusal, apparently “based on the advice of the Australian Defence Force”, not to provide Ukraine with 46 MRH-90 Taipan multirole helicopters, just retired from service.
The Taipan has had a troubled history in Australia with logistics and sustainment problems and an entrenched army view that the helicopter failed to deliver key military requirements.
In July last year a Taipan crashed off Hamilton Island in north Queensland, tragically killing the four crew members. The platform was grounded, which is normal after a serious accident, but in September Defence Minister Richard Marles announced “helicopters will not return to flying operations before their planned withdrawal date of December 2024”.
Then last month it became known that the helicopters would be disassembled and buried. Note that the value of each platform on the second-hand market is reportedly $20m.
It is not clear if Defence or the government holds fears for the helicopter’s overall airworthiness – a separate issue to the specific cause of the July crash. A dozen military forces around the world continue to operate hundreds of MRH-90s.
Ukraine has asked for the helicopters. Its air force operates about 15 ex-Soviet Mi-8 utility helicopters. The US provided 25 Mi-17 Russian utility helicopters formerly in service with the Afghan military.
These are essential for moving troops and supplies. The Ukrainians flew some unbelievably courageous helicopter missions to resupply troops surrounded at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol in 2022.
Russia faces its own crisis of supply for helicopter parts. The Wall Street Journal reported last November that Egypt had agreed to return 100 helicopter engines to Russia and that “Moscow has also contacted Pakistani, Belarusian and Brazilian officials to try to recover engines and transport helicopters its forces lost to Ukrainian defences”.
While the Taipans are no longer in Australian service, they could provide a decisive battlefield advantage to Ukraine. A combination of the Australian platforms and training and logistic support from European MRH-90 users would greatly strengthen Kyiv’s military position.
European states involved in the Taipan’s manufacture could well be keen to find a forever home for their helicopter rather than a burial. Australia should explore that possibility.
The cost of deconstructing the helicopters and removing rare earth and other dangerous materials before burial will cost millions, in all probability more than the cost of crating and shipping them to Europe. What on earth is happening here? The government needs to provide some frank explanations to some bizarre decisions about the Taipans.
First, why was the Taipan permanently grounded after the July 2023 crash? That is the opposite of the “ordinary process” Thistlethwaite draws on to justify the decommissioning. Normally the priority is to get the platform back in the air, with crews being trained and operations mounted.
Second, Thistlethwaite says: “We want to make sure that safety is first when it comes to not only the helicopter fleet but all equipment that’s used by the Australian Defence Force.” It’s true that not flying is safer, but if there is a concern about the safety of the helicopter, what communication has the government or Defence had with New Zealand and our European partners operating the MRH-90?
Third, how long will the ADF be without a battlefield troop-lift capability given the new Blackhawks are not yet commissioned and only three are in country?
Fourth, in accepting the decommissioning of the helicopter, what advice did the government have about the likely requirement for ADF aerial support during the summer floods and bushfire season?
Fifth, what advice did the government have about the ADF’s ability to respond to a natural disaster or stabilisation task in the region given that summer is also the tropical cyclone season in Southeast Asia and the Pacific?
Sixth, what arrangements does the ADF have in place to deploy our east and west coast counter-terror response teams given the Taipan has played that role?
Seventh, what impact is this lengthy pause between Taipan and Black Hawk operations having on personnel retention in key units?
Eighth, what steps is the government taking to assure itself that, according to policy requirements, “When disposing of surplus equipment, Defence is obliged to obtain the best outcome for the commonwealth and must use the most economical means whenever practical”?
And, finally, why not provide them to Ukraine? How can disassembly and burial be a better option given Kyiv’s need for aviation capabilities?
It is past time Anthony Albanese and Marles offered some clear explanations rather than veiled references about safety behind the ambiguity of “the advice of the Australian Defence Force”.
This article originally appeared in The Australian on 10 January 2024
But was published on Strategic Analysis Australia on 12 January 2024.