Australia Is Giving Up on Its Tiger Gunships, Which Have Never Seen Combat
This helicopter has problems
Australia bought its Tiger ARH attack helicopters only eight years ago, and now it wants to scrap all 22 of them. Even more embarrassing, the Tiger has still not yet achieved “final operational capability” — meaning the helicopter never fully became ready for combat.
The decision to ditch the Tiger — to occur in the 2020s — landed with a thud with the release of Australia’s 2016 defense white paper, which laid out the country’s military strategy over the coming decades. The plan includes U.S. $21.5 billion in new spending, which would pay for new submarines, frigates, patrol vessels, aircraft and drones among many other big-ticket items.
But not the Tiger.
In 2004, Australia received its first Tiger, a nimble gunship produced by Eurocopter — now part of Airbus — to serve in light-attack and reconnaissance roles. The Tiger is roughly equivalent to the U.S.-made AH-64 Apache except lighter and with longer range. It can fire Hellfire missiles, 70-millimeter Hydra rockets and 30-millimeter cannon shells. On-board Stinger missiles serve as the anti-air weapon.
The Tiger “was modeled very much along the Apache model, but using later airframe technology, and with different role optimizations,” analyst Carlo Kopp of the Air Power Australia think tank wrote in 2009.
Above — an Australian Tiger ARH in February 2015. Bidgee/Wikimedia photo. At top — an Australian Tiger during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2011. U.S. Air Force photo
Yet Australia’s Tiger has never seen combat, despite $2 billion in costs to buy them and Canberra’s troops fighting heavily in Afghanistan for more than a decade. (Today, Australia has 400 troops there in an advisory role.) Keeping the Tiger at home was also an awkward decision, as German, French and Spanish Tiger variants deployed to Afghanistan at different times.
Not that Australia had much of a choice. There were delays with the helicopter’s software. Parts must be shipped to Europe for repair, a time-consuming and expensive process. Worst of all, the air conditioning units and power capacitors broke down and filled cockpits with toxic, black smoke.
During one incident, “the window was jammed shut after not being checked during pre-flight inspections so the crew was forced to take the risky step of blowing the canopy off to ventilate the cockpit,” the Australian reported in 2012.
Trust in the aircraft deteriorated so much, that pilots effectively mutinied in 2012 by refusing to fly. “Usually you have to fight to stop military pilots from flying,” a defense source told the newspaper.
Canberra wants to replace the Tiger with a lighter helicopter for commandos that can fit inside a C-17 transport plane — along the lines of the American MH-6 Little Bird. Plus more CH-47 Chinook transport birds for heavier lifting.
It makes sense. Delays and mechanical miseries aside, the deeper problem is that the Tiger was never really a good fit for Australia in the 21st century. The gunship was originally designed in the 1980s for a European battlefield — hence the similarities to the Apache, the multi-role abilities and the anti-tank weapons. Canberra would now rather prepare for more unconventional wars and to counter Chinese sea power.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Canberra wants to grow its military spending without blowing its budget. In a 2015 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, defense analyst Andrew Davies noted the Tiger came about as a way to reduce the number of helicopters in service, and thus save money.
“And in fact, nothing of the sort has happened,” Davies said. “We’ve spent billions of dollars, lost many years of capability because the helicopters weren’t as mature as we thought.”