Australia has ordered 40 US-made Black Hawk helicopters after scrapping an existing deal with Europe’s Airbus over performance issues with its existing fleet, as Canberra increases defence alignment with the US in the Indo-Pacific region.
The switch, which was initially announced in 2021 but not formalised until Wednesday, had been put under review by Australia’s new Labor government last year due to the nearly A$3bn (US$2.1bn) cost of buying the Black Hawks.
The deal comes on the heels of Australia’s move in 2021 to source nuclear-powered submarines from the US or UK, rather than from France, a decision that triggered a diplomatic conflict after Canberra tore up a A$90bn contract with French supplier Naval Group.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s government has continued to support the Aukus alliance with the US and UK and is due to publish a review of the country’s defence spending and contract base by March.
The helicopter swap was prompted by performance and suitability issues with the Airbus Taipan aircraft, but Richard Marles, Australia’s defence minister, said the decision to drop the contract with the aerospace group 16 years early would not undermine the government’s efforts to repair relations with Paris.
“This is not a surprise to the French,” Marles told national broadcaster ABC. “Obviously, we’ve forecasted to them a long time ahead of this announcement where we’re going here. So we’re confident that this won’t interrupt . . . the renewed relationship with France.”
Deliveries of the US helicopters will begin this year and come against a backdrop of rising geopolitical tension in the Indo-Pacific region, following a number of confrontations between Chinese and Australian forces.
Jeremy King, head of land capability at Australia’s defence department, said: “The Black Hawk capability will be a crucial element for us to protect Australia’s sovereignty, and deliver foreign policy objectives, including providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
Clinton Fernandes, an academic at the University of New South Wales Future Operations Research Group, said the helicopter contract indicated how alignment with the US was among Australia’s defence priorities.
“Interoperability is probably the core feature of Australia’s military procurement and is central to the Australian way of war: to operate inside the strategy of a superpower by contributing a well-chosen, niche capability to augment the larger force,” he said.
The helicopters will be based at Oakey in southern Queensland and Holsworthy in New South Wales. Townsville, the Queensland city in the far north that is home to combat forces and some of the Taipan helicopters, will not initially be used as a base for the new US helicopters.
“There has long been an organic connection between the Army’s aviation element and its other combat elements,” Fernandes said of the shift.