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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2925


Senator MacGIBBON(8.54) —I briefly touch on a matter which was announced in the last week and had not been decided two months ago, on 18 and 23 September, when the Estimates committee met. It relates to the transfer of helicopters to the Army from the Air Force. This is a very wrong decision for the Government to have made because it will involve unnecessary duplication of scarce resources. We are not talking about a minor indulgence of $10m, $20m or $30m. I believe the true cost will be between the $150m and $200m, in the fullness of time, over the 25 years in which we will operate these helicopters. What we are talking about, to put it in its clearest terms, is an air transport role. We are not talking about a fighting role for these helicopters. We are talking about battlefield taxis-something to pick up a group of diggers, a section, and shift them from here to there, over a short range.

The history of this decision is interesting. It started when the chief of the Army, the Chief of the General Staff, wrote to the Chief of the Defence Force, requesting that the helicopters be transferred from the Air Force to the Army. This is old ground, because not many years ago, when General Dunstan was the Chief of Defence Force Staff-as he was then called-the matter was exhaustively examined and rejected wholeheartedly. The CDF set up a committee to look at it. Mr Chairman, being an old Navy man, you will realise the quality of the committee because it was chaired by a commodore of the Royal Australian Navy, and the members were a captain of the Royal Australian Navy and two commanders, so there was a total of four Navy personnel. There was one member from the Air Force, one from the Army and a civilian member from the Department, totalling seven members in all. After an inquiry the committee recommended by six votes to one-an overwhelming majority-that the transfer not take place. That recommendation was never placed before the Defence Force Development Committee, the Committee which is charged in the Department of Defence with major resource allocations. It should have gone to the DFDC for consideration, but it did not go there.

The recommendation of the Committee was taken to the Chiefs of Staff Committee. The two Army members of the Committee rejected the report and voted for the transfer to take place. The Chief of Naval Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff accepted the report. After lunch, when the meeting reconvened, the head of the Navy changed his view and recommended that the transfer take place. I utterly reject the story in the Canberra Times that he did so because he wanted surface combatants bought for the Navy in a few months time. I do not believe that that is a tenable proposition. If the CNS thought of anything, he thought of the maritime reconnaissance squadrons. He thought-if he thought about anything at all-that, if he agreed to the transfer of the helicopters from the Air Force to the Army, maybe the Army would support him when the proposition arose to transfer 10 and 11 squadrons-the long range maritime patrol squadrons-to the Navy. I read his letter which was published in today's Canberra Times-it started me down this track-in which he equated the Army use of the helicopters with the use of naval helicopters. To put it politely, that is an example of very muddled thinking, because what we are talking about in the Army case is the use of an air lift capability-just simple battlefield taxis.

In the case of the Navy helicopters, this is a complex weapons system for an anti-submarine warfare role primarily, or an anti-surface ship targeting role. The naval helicopter is part of a very specialised weapons system. It is not a transport role at all. I said that this is the wrong decision because it involves us in enormous duplication. It has also caused another problem because it has affected the morale of the Air Force to a considerable degree. In a situation in which morale in all three Services is at a low ebb, it is stupid management practice to do anything to exacerbate an already bad situation.

I commented last week on the behaviour of the Army in the way in which it conducted this debate over the months in public. The way in which the Army behaved reflects no credit on it. It behaved in a childish and petulant way. The way in which it conducted the debate was through letters to the editors of various journals and papers in this country. I am sorry to say that it does show a total inadequacy on the part of the Army to comprehend that it is part of an Australian Defence Force. It does not realise that the Navy and the Air Force are brothers in arms. We have one service in Australia-the Australian Defence Force. I think the other two Services realise it. But the way in which the Army acted in this matter shows that it has not even started to approach the problem. If one talks to members of the Army, one finds that they are quite happy to ride around in United States Army helicopters in a battlefield operation. They are quite happy to use United States Marine Corps helicopters. They are not happy to use RAAF helicopters.

The position at present with respect to rotary wing aircraft is that the Army operates only one-that is, the Kiowa, which is the military version of the Bell jet ranger, a light observation helicopter. It is a very light, very simple and very basic single-engined turbine helicopter. The other two service helicopters operated in Australia, apart from the Squirrels that have come in in the last 12 months, are the Bell Iroquois, which is operated by the Air Force, and the Chinook, which provides what heavy lift capability we have, which again is operated by the Air Force.

The Iroquois cost us about $490,000 and its replacement, the Blackhawk, will cost more than $10m. The proposal announced by the Government is that the Army will progressively take over the operation of the Iroquois and as the Blackhawks come on line the Army will operate the Blackhawks. It is utterly illogical for the Army to say that and leave the Chinooks with the Air Force. If it wants to argue that case it should be arguing for the Chinooks as well. The Air Force does not want the Chinooks; their sole role is artillery support. They have a heavy lift capability to shift 105-millimetre artillery and ammunition pallets around the battlefield. Within Air Force operations there is no use for the Chinooks. I have never discussed this with the Air Force but I would think that the Air Force would be happy to get out of operating Chinooks because they are so maintenance intensive and so expensive to run.

After talking to quite a few Army people I have come to the conclusion, regrettably, that no one, from the generals down to the privates, has any clear idea of what is involved in operating Blackhawks. They talk about the simplicity of transferring the maintenance facilities to the Army and about the simplicity of being able to train pilots. But their whole experience is in operating the Kiowa, which, with respect, is just a toy compared to the Blackhawk.

In June this year I spent some time at Sikorsky's factory in Stratford Connecticut going through the engineering, support and pilot training for this helicopter. It is a very complex helicopter. It might be 10 years old but it is a couple of generations on from the Iroquois. It does require sophisticated crews to operate it and very sophisticated maintenance. The Army is putting the case that somehow or other it will be cheaper for it to operate the Blackhawk than for the Air Force. It is being quite dishonest in this. It talks about using warrant officers or sergeant pilots to crew them and it points to the great saving that it thinks will come from that. This instrument flight rules helicopter requires two pilots to operate it, and it needs two very capable pilots at that. The RAAF has difficulty at the moment recruiting pilots. It is recruiting basically from people who have a university entrance standard education. But somehow or other the Army thinks it can achieve the same level of professional competence by using pilots who have a lower educational standard of entry. I do not think that will work out.

Another point is that the Air Force has difficulty recruiting pilots when it can offer them the full spectrum of rotary wing and fixed wing aircraft in the Air Force inventory to fly. Most Air Force pilots move through a range of aircraft in their life. The Army can offer pilots promotion only to the level of sergeant or warrant officer and keep them on the one type of aircraft. If the Air Force cannot retain pilots with its system the Army has even less chance of retaining its pilots if it will make them only non-commissioned officers.

The real cost will be in maintenance and supporting these helicopters. Special maintenance equipment will have to be brought in for the Blackhawk. We have an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in helicopter and general aircraft maintenance facilities in the Air Force establishments at present. To duplicate them and to set up maintenance facilities for the Army will involve the Australian taxpayer in hundreds of millions of dollars of absolutely wasted expenditure. The generals through to the privates do not understand this point. So one puts it in different terms to them. When one asks `What do you want the helicopters for?' they reply: `We just want to lift this section from here to there-five miles. That is it. We want to get in the helicopter and get out. We are not going to fight from it'. When one says `Fine, we can do that for you. Now do you want to do that or do you want to own the helicopters? If you want to own the helicopters that is all you get. Do you want to get some fire support helicopters such as some Apaches and Cobras, because you do not have any close air support? Do you want some Cobras or Apache tow mounting helicopters for an anti-armour role or a bunker busting?' they say: `Yes, we'll have the Apaches'. With the couple of hundred million dollars the Army has lost by owning these things they won't get close air support which they need.

The solution is to leave the helicopters with the Air Force and to take 9 Squadron or what other squadrons are formed with Blackhawks and task them solely to the Army. They should not be based at Garbutt; they should be based at Lavarack. The crews should live, drink and sleep with the diggers. In that way they can be completely integrated with the Army units. They can develop their communications and doctrine and do their tactical development with the Army.

The Blackhawk is a very big and complex helicopter. I have spent most of my life mixed up in aviation. It appals me that otherwise intelligent people do not realise the specialised skills that are involved in aviation. The last 70 or 80 years have seen enormous advances in aviation, but they have been bought at a very high price. The lay person who gets into an airliner and flies around the world in 24 hours does not appreciate the difficulties and the expense at which this experience has been purchased. Aviation operates in three dimensions; it is different from operating on the surface of the water or on the surface of the land. The specialists in aviation are in the Air Force. Let us use their skills for the benefit of Australia.

This afternoon I was reading the United States Senate Defense Committee's report on Granada. The problems the Army and Marine Corps had with the Army and the Navy in Granada were very interesting. There were difficulties in the lack of commonality of equipment and communications. That is one of the reasons the Army says it wants control of these helicopters. But that problem could be overcome if the Air Force units lived with and were part of Operational Deployment Force or whatever other units the Army wants to operate with them. The air forces of the United Kingdom, Canada, France and New Zealand and the practising professionals-namely, the Israelis, who are always fighting-always use their Air Force, not their Army, to provide this battlefield lift capability for their troops.


The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Coleman) —Before I call Senator Michael Baume, I remind the Committee again that this is not the opportunity for delivering second reading stage speeches. Senator MacGibbon came very close to being pulled up. Whilst he was relating his comments to a particular series of appropriations, he got very close to giving us a second reading stage speech. That is time wasting; it is time consuming and it is not the role at this stage.


Senator MacGibbon —On a point of order: Madam Temporary Chairman, with respect, you were not in the chamber when I started my speech. In my introduction I said that a matter has arisen within the last week which it was not possible for me to ask about two months ago.


The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN —I was listening in my office to what the honourable senator said in his opening remarks. I am simply making the point that toward the end of his speech he got right away from the appropriations. I cannot understand how he could possibly say that what the Israeli Government allows its armed forces to do has anything whatsoever to do with what our appropriations are about.