Australia Is Literally Burying Its Doomed NH90 Helicopter Fleet

The Australia’s young NH90 helicopters were such a nightmare that they are being stripped of parts and buried after nobody wanted them.

byJohn Hunter Farrell|
Scrapped NH90
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Over the past few months, the Australian Army has been ridding itself of its retired fleet of problematic NHIndustries NH-90 Tactical Transport Helicopters (TTH) by deliberately wrecking and literally burying the remnants. Now Ukraine has upped the stakes with a formal request for whatever is left of the unloved helicopters

You can read all about the sad saga of Australia’s NH-90 fleet in our previous in-depth report linked here

Reports that the Australian Army was deliberately scrapping its troublesome NH-90 Tactical Transport Helicopters have been confirmed to The War Zone by a source with intimate knowledge of the ongoing disposal of what was one of the most modern and expensive Western military helicopter fleets in service anywhere outside the United States or Europe. The source's information, especially as it pertains to buying the stripped airframes, has since been corroborated by other outlets' reports.

An Australian soldier deploys from a 5th Aviation Regiment NH-90 Tactical Transport Helicopter into Townsville Field Training Area during Exercise Chau Pha in June 2023 in what would have been amongst the final flight operations of the type. Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defense

The source also provided imagery and video still captures of at least six of the already wrecked-beyond-recovery NH-90 airframes, which have been stripped to their carbon composite frames, before being dumped at an Australian Army compound within the joint Australian Defense Force operating facility at Royal Australian Air Force base Amberley in the north-eastern Australian state of Queensland.

The disclosure of the disposal of the airframes has been further confirmed by the Australian Department of Defense, responding to media information requests with a standardized statement, “Defense is working with Airbus Australia Pacific and NATO Helicopter Industries (NHIndustries) to harvest key spares from the MRH-90 [Australia’s designation of the NH-90] fleet for use of other NH-90 operators. Defense will dispose of the remaining airframes and systems in an environmentally friendly and cost-effective manner.”

A completely stripped and cannibalized Australian Army NH-90 helicopter is craned onto a semi trailer at Airbus Australia Pacific’s facility for transport to Amberley and burial. Picture undisclosed

Deliberately destroying a billion-dollar aircraft fleet is not a standard operational procedure for the Australian Defense Force, although there is a precedent, which we will get to. The Australian military traditionally places retired aircraft, like its recently withdrawn from service F/A-18A/B+ “classic” Hornet and older C-130H Hercules fleet, in contractor-maintained preservation storage until approved buyers can be found through the Australian Defense Force Export Office, Australia’s equivalent of the U.S. State Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. 

But when it came to the still relatively new NH-90 TTH, the Australian Defense Force has taken a much more radical approach. 

“We made the right decision to immediately ground the MRH-90 fleet after the tragic accident in Queensland, and we made a decision to bring forward the replacement of them with Black Hawk helicopters. We immediately began a disposal strategy for the MRH-90s. That first step was contacting other users of the helicopter to see if anyone was interested in buying the airframes. There was no interest,” Australian Minister for Defense Industry Pat Conroy told a media conference in Canberra on January 16.

“Secondly, we then worked with Airbus to see if there was any potential new customers interested in buying the airframes. there was no interest in that either. So then we moved to develop a disposal strategy that offered [the] best value for money for taxpayers, which was disassembly and sale of the spare parts,” the Minister stated.

In reality, the cannibalization and disposal of the Aussie Army’s NH-90 fleet had been conducted covertly since October. Outside of specialist Australian defense media outlets there was almost no public discussion until the Ukrainian government made an entrance with a formal request, written by no less than Ukraine’s widely recognized Chief of Intelligence Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov, with an emotional plea for what remained of the NH-90 TTH fleet.

This kicked off a huge vocal response from Ukraine’s large social media support base in Australia and across the Western World.

Responding to Ukraine, the Australian government formally rejected its request for the helicopters on January 16 after enduring another embarrassing social media battle with Ukraine’s adeptly mobilized online supporters over the helicopters. 

“Some months after that process began (the cannibalization and disposal of the NH90s), Ukraine made a formal request for the MRH-90s. It will require considerable taxpayers’ money and time to get those aircraft back into flying conditions. And I should also make the point that there are multiple crash investigations still going on right now to determine the cause of that tragic accident in Queensland. So it would be irresponsible for us to move away from the disposal strategy that we’ve locked on in,” Australian Minister of Defense Industry Pat Conroy stated in an explanation of the rejection of General Budanov’s request.

Unfortunately for Ukraine, Australia’s demolition of its NH-90 TTH fleet had progressed too far to even consider the option of donation to Ukraine’s war effort.

Reports that Australia has given its close Anzac partner the Royal New Zealand Air Force some of the salvaged NH-90 components to support its small fleet of nine NH-90 TTHs may well prove true, as both Australia and New Zealand are the ultimate international ‘battle buddies’ with over 120 years of military cooperation. However, neither Australia nor New Zealand has officially confirmed any transfer of NH-90-related systems or materials.

Australian Army 5th Aviation Regiment NH-90s lift off during an Air Mobility exercise at Townsville Field Training Area during an Australian Army 3rd Brigade Combined Arms Training Activity. Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defense

The Australian Defense Force’s decision to dismantle and destroy its NH-90 Tactical Transport Helicopter fleet followed hard on the heels of a series of in-flight and operational incidents, which culminated in the deaths of four Australian NH-90 aircrew during a night-time special operations aviation support exercise with the U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment over the Great Barrier Reef in late July 2023.

According to the inside source, only one of the Australian Army’s fleet of 44 flyable NH-90s has been sold. The remaining 43 (and two non-airworthy airframes) are earmarked for complete cannibalization followed by destruction, with the remnants to be buried at a secret location. 

The Australian Department of Defense has refused to disclose how many of the helicopters have already been reduced to spares and prepped for disposal, but the destruction of the fleet is well underway according to the Minister of Defense Industry Pat Conroy’s statements.

The destruction of at least six of the 40 former Australian Army NH-90s was completed last year ahead of the layoff of hundreds of contractors on December 31, who were formerly employed to sustain the Australian Army’s NH-90 fleet by Airbus Australia Pacific and subcontractors.

An Australian Army NH-90 Tactical Transport Helicopter conducts a casevac Aeromedical Evacuation exercise with Australian Army infantry during training in 2020. Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defense

The wreckage of those six NH-90s was trucked from Airbus Australia Pacific’s facility at Brisbane Airport to RAAF Amberley, where the stripped airframes were unceremoniously dumped under some low trees at a military facility within the ADF ‘mega-base’.

An undisclosed number of NH-90 airframes earmarked for destruction were stored at three other locations: approximately half of the fleet at the Australian Army Aviation’s elite 6th Aviation Regiment’s headquarters at Luscombe Army Airfield within Special Operations Command – Australia’s expansive Holsworthy Barracks in Western Sydney; about six airframes at the Army School of Aviation at Swartz Barracks 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of Amberley; and the balance at the Maintenance Storage and Transition facility at RAAF Townsville in Far North Queensland.

The entire fleet is progressively being trucked to final locations for stripping and destruction as the Australian Army’s permanent flight ban of the type prevents them from being flown directly to Airbus Australia Pacific or other disposal locations

The decision to scrap the entire Australian Army NH-90 fleet was taken at the government level, prior to the announcement of the permanent grounding of the fleet on September 29, 2023, by the Australian Minister of Defense Richard Marles.

The exact value of the helicopters being dumped is difficult to determine. The initial mid-2000’s acquisition program of record, Project Air 9000 (Battlefield Mobility Helicopters), was budgeted at $3.5 billion Australian dollars (about $3 billion USD at the time). Billions more were spent after the type entered Australian Army service in November 2007, both on sustainment and on a series of well-funded attempts to fix the type’s many technical and design issues.

Australian Army flown NH-90 callsign Midnight is lowered into the hangar deck of the Royal Australian Navy’s Canberra class Amphibious Assault Ship HMAS Adelaide during exercises near Brisbane Queensland in 2019. Pic Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defense

Recent aviation industry media has estimated each of the relatively low-hour airframes (the low hours reflect the NH-90’s long and unrewarding operational service and multiple groundings), at about $13.5 million USD per airframe on the international market, if an NHIndustries’ approved buyer seeking additional NH-90s could have been found.

According to our source, only one airframe, the 47th and final delivery, A40-047, will survive the fleet destruction and disposal. Aussie Taipan A40-047 was delivered to the Australian Defense Force as part of a negotiated settlement between the Australian Government and NH-90 manufacturer NHIndustries in compensation for the large number of design and reliability issue fixes experienced by the Australians in the initial years of NH-90 Introduction into Service.

Taipan A40-047, which had only flown around 500 hours, has been sold back to prime contractor NHIndustries in Europe where it will be employed within the manufacturer’s training and test fleet.

Three other Australian NH-90s were lost or damaged beyond economic repair during their service with the Australian Defense Force: A40-014 suffered fire damage during bushfire response operations in New South Wales in 2020; A40-025 was damaged beyond repair after an engine failure during Special Operations training exercises at Jervis Bay Territory in March 2023; and A40-040 which was involved in the fatal crash near Lindeman Island in the Great Barrier Reef in July 2023 during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2023, killing four aircrew.

The loss of three airframes and four aviators between 2020 and 2023 was the final straw for the Australian Defense Force, which had formally lost patience with the NH-90 in 2021 after almost 14 years of extremely low availability, constant groundings, massive cost overrun, and severe technical issues. The combined NH-90 issues finally resulted in the Australian decision to replace the type by December 2024 with new UH-60M Black Hawks.

One of the first flights of the Australian Army’s three early delivery UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, conducted by the 6th Aviation Regiment’s 171st Special Operations Squadron, out of Luscombe Army Airfield in Sydney. Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defense

The NH-90’s sustainment and technical problems were exacerbated by a list of design shortcomings. These, ranging from floors that would deform under the weight of a fully-equipped soldier through to the impossibility of manning door guns while personnel embarked or disembarked from the primary cargo bay doors, defeated the Australian Defense Force’s best efforts to make the NH-90 combat deployable. 

The Australian Department of Defense is ‘harvesting key spares’ from the NH-90 fleet prior to their destruction, due to the high demand for some of the sub-systems. This is a complex job that requires oversight to ensure the preservation of the relevant airworthiness assurance and certification documentation while salvaging some of the parts.

The department's decision to dispose of the stripped NH-90 airframes, reportedly by burial at a secure site, is being carried out to reduce the risk of environmental contamination from the carbon composite airframes which can shed extremely toxic particles if allowed to decay or are burned.

The disposal of the Australian Army’s NH-90 fleet comes a year and a half after the Royal Australian Navy Fleet Air Arm, whose HMAS Albatross Nowra-based 808 Squadron flew six of the type in the Naval Logistic Helicopter role, abandoned the type in April 2022.

A Royal Australian Navy 808 Squadron NH-90 Tactical Transport Helicopter conducts a personnel winch from an Australian Collins class diesel-electric submarine prior to the early retirement of the Navy’s NH-90s in April 2022. Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defense

The RAN Fleet Air Arm opted for more MH-60R Romeos to replace the NH-90 after the Taipan failed to meet critical requirements after seven years of trying.

A Royal Australian Navy 808 Squadron MH-60R Romeo Seahawk conducts a vertical replenishment of the Australian Anzac class frigate HMAS Toowoomba during operations in the South China Sea in 2023, after the squadron re-equipped after retiring its NH-90s in April 2022. Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defense

The Australian Defense Force is not the only international military keen to divest themselves of the problematic NH-90 helicopter, with the Norwegian, Belgian, and Swedish militaries also replacing all or part of their NH-90 Tactical Transport Helicopter or NH-90 NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) fleets.

While a rare practice, Australia has previous experience in burying combat equipment, having done so with more than 20 F-111C and F-111G airframes after the Aardvark was retired from RAAF service in 2010. The burial of the retired F-111s was also deliberate due to a 1960s-era agreement with the U.S. government to ensure no transfer of the nuclear-capable aircraft to third nations after withdrawal from RAAF service.

However, burying the NH-90 nightmare hasn’t ended the Australian Army’s battlefield mobility helicopter woes. The delayed entry into service of the replacement fleet of 40 UH-60M Black Hawks has resulted in the Aussies being entirely reliant on their 14 CH-47F Chinooks and a tiny fleet of AW139 helicopters while they wait for more UH-60Ms and the qualification of crews and technicians to fly and fix them.

One of the handful of leased AW139 helicopters operated by Australian Army Aviation conducting emergency disaster relief operations in northern Australia in December 2023, filling in for the now stripped and destroyed NH-90s. Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defense

Currently, the Australian Army’s five former operational battlefield mobility helicopter squadrons have been reduced to a single CH-47F Chinook unit, the RAAF Townsville-based C Squadron, and a fleet of three leased ‘white’ AW139s.

Three new UH-60M Black Hawks have now been delivered to the Sydney-based 6th Aviation Regiment and are the center of a frantic validation and verification program to ensure a viable Special Operations Aviation Support capability is available to meet any terrorist or international security contingencies that could threaten Australia or its allies.

Australian Army Aviation plans to field three aviation regiments and a comprehensive Army School of Aviation by mid-2025: the 1st Aviation Regiment transferring from its current base at Robertson Barracks in Darwin, Northern Territory, to RAAF Townsville in northern Queensland. There it will transition from the Airbus Helicopters EC665 Tiger ARH to the AH-64Ev6 Apache Guardian; the 5th Aviation Regiment, which will be split with the C Squadron CH-47F Chinooks remaining at RAAF Townsville and its A and B Squadrons re-establishing themselves at Swartz Barracks within the Army School of Aviation at Oakey flying UH-60M Black Hawks; and the 6th Aviation Regiment with its subordinate 171st and 173rd Special Operations Aviation Squadrons flying UH-60M Black Hawks in the Special Operations Aviation Support role out of Holsworthy Barracks in Sydney.

Within three years the Australian Defense Force will fly an all-American helicopter fleet, with 29 new AH-64Ev6 Apaches, 40 new UH-60M Black Hawks, 14 new-ish CH-47F Chinooks, and 36 (including 13 brand new) MH-60R Romeo Seahawks flying with Australian Army Aviation and the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm.

Contact the editor: tyler@thedrive.com

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