Ukraine and helicopters: Mr Albanese needs to dig Defence and Pat Conroy out of a hole of their own making
A wounded Ukrainian soldier

The Ukrainian military needs Australia's retired Taipan helicopters to evacuate wounded soldiers from the frontline.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

“Australia stands with Ukraine. We pay tribute to the unwavering resilience and courage displayed by the Ukrainian people.”

That’s what prime minister Anthony Albanese says when asked about Australia’s support for Ukraine in its fight against Putin’s invasion.  But actions speak louder than words.  

The sight of Australian bulldozers burying 45 vital military helicopters that the Ukrainian military wants to use to evacuate soldiers wounded on the frontline will speak much more loudly to the Ukrainian people and wider world than more sentimental rhetoric from the Albanese government.

Unbelievably, Albanese’s Defence Industry minister, Pat Conroy, apparently has now formally advised the Ukrainian government that this is what is going to happen.  He will not give them Australia’s recently retired Taipan military helicopters – because Defence is in the middle of taking them apart and burying them and can’t be interrupted.

This is decision making at its worst.  Apparently, Defence advised ministers Conroy and Marles back in September that there were no buyers for the grounded aircraft and that the cheapest way to end the program would be to take them apart, sell some spares and bury the airframes.

A quick global scan of potential buyers commissioned by Defence was done to support the decision.  But it seems very likely that Defence didn’t ask the Ukrainian military if they were interested at the time.  That’s a major oversight.

Talking about the issue this week, Minister Conroy laid a lot of emphasis on the timeline around the disposal, saying that the plan was put in motion in September and it was only in December that a formal request for the helicopters was received from the Ukrainian government – through a letter from Ukraine’s Lieutenant General Budanov.

That word ‘formal’ is doing a lot of work here though, as any formal request is usually preceded by informal ones.  In other words, the Defence organisation – and perhaps even government ministers – are likely to have known about the Ukrainian interest well before December’s letter. Given the Ukrainians are fighting a war and have a desperate need for equipment, the disposal work should at least have paused while the Government considered the Ukrainian interest.  That doesn’t seem to have happened.

Minister Conroy’s statements show that he seems to believe that Defence has got so far along with its disposal plan that the helicopters cannot now be returned to flying condition, so there is now no alternative to proceeding with Defence’s original, flawed plan to sell spares and bury the helicopters. 

That’s almost certainly wrong too.  Defence finds it hard to do anything quickly, so it would be entirely out of character for this work to have moved at lightning speed. 

If the aircraft and their components still exist and the airframes haven’t actually been buried, then whatever has been done to disassemble them can be undone.  Some disassembly would be needed to ship the aircraft to Ukraine anyway. Getting the helicopters back flying will just take time and effort – and that’s what General Budanov has said Ukraine’s military are willing to do.

We hear a lot about safety issues with the Taipan helicopter, with this being apparently a critical reason for Australia not giving the aircraft to the Ukrainians.  That is also misleading. 

The same helicopter is called the NH-90 in Europe, with the ‘NH’ standing for NATO Helicopter.  Germany, France and Italy’s militaries are all flying these helicopters. They haven’t grounded them because of any safety concerns raised with them by Australia. None of these NATO countries operating the helicopter right now are known as crazy risk takers when it comes to safety and airworthiness.

The fact is that the helicopters are capable aircraft – they are just complex and costly to maintain and operate. The Australian general previously in charge of airworthiness for all Army aircraft made this point recently.

Safety is certainly important, but it’s always a balance and things look different in wartime Ukraine than in peacetime Canberra. The bigger safety issue for the Ukrainian military is being able to evacuate wounded frontline soldiers quickly.  They don’t have enough helicopters and currently rely on Soviet-era helicopters that are difficult to maintain in a different way – spares are hard to find and the helicopters are very old, with all the challenges that brings to managing aircraft.  

The Ukrainians would love to have the problem of maintaining and flying 45 modern Taipan helicopters and working with the NATO militaries and European companies that operate and support the same machines.

There’s a whiff of paternalism and condescension around the justification for not giving the Ukrainians the helicopters because of the Australian Defence organisation and ministers’ concerns about safety.  The Ukrainians are technologically capable and sophisticated people, whose country was a core source of aeronautical and engineering excellence during Soviet times. They have kept and built this area of expertise, which has been supercharged by Putin’s war.

Just this week, a Ukrainian designed and made long range drone attacked St Petersburg at a range of some 1,250 kms and the Ukrainian military have successfully put the ‘FrankenSAM’ into service – a hybrid air defence system using a Soviet-era launcher to fire Western missiles.  This kind of technological capacity shows why General Budanov and the expert taskforce he assembled to study the idea of operating the aircraft are confident the Taipan helicopters will be a force multiplier in the war against Putin.

Our own military and the Defence Department that supports it would be hard pressed to match this technological innovation and excellence.

It’s beyond disturbing to see Minister Conroy doubling down on Defence’s original poor plan to dispose of the Taipan helicopters now he knows that Ukraine has a desperate need for them – along with a plan and the capacity to operate and support them.

A bad decision doesn’t get better with age or repetition. If Minister Conroy doesn’t rethink things fast and write a second letter to General Budanov reversing his decision and advising that the Taipans and all their spares and documentation are being boxed up to ship to Kyiv, then prime minister Albanese needs to step in and do so.

If neither the prime minister nor minister Conroy can bring themselves to do this, then perhaps two things can happen: Ambassador Myroshnychenko can accept Pat Conroy’s offer of a briefing to hear the reasons minister Conroy has for his refusal – receiving that briefing while witnessing the Taipans being buried.  And minister Conroy can accept an invitation to attend the burials of Ukrainian frontline soldiers who will die because of the lack of helicopters to evacuate them rapidly for treatment.

War is a serious business and decisions affecting it have consequences.

This article was originally published by Sky Digital.