18 January 2024
SUBJECTS: Ukraine’s request for Australia’s grounded MRH-90 fleet, relisting of Houthis as a terrorist organisation.
SALLY SARA: There’s been mounting pressure on the Albanese Government over its decision to dismantle and bury Australia’s retired fleet of Taipan helicopters instead of sending them to war-torn Ukraine. Ukraine made an official request for the MRH‑90s in December, despite the aircraft’s well documented safety and operational concerns. The Australian Army’s MRH-90 helicopters were retired 14 months earlier than scheduled after a crash in Queensland killed four defence personnel during a training exercise last year.
Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy joins me now. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.
MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY PAT CONROY: Good morning. How are you?
SALLY SARA: Very well. What’s the response that Australia has given Ukraine officials regarding this request for the Taipans?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, it’s important to go through the timeline of this process, because there’s a bit of misinformation out there about how this has all occurred. After the tragic crash last year we were faced with a circumstance where the fleet had to be grounded while those crash investigations were undertaken, and they’re still ongoing. And we were faced with a situation where even if the aircraft were cleared during those investigations they only had a few months to go before they were being replaced by new Black Hawk helicopters.
In that circumstances, the government made the decision to permanently ground the fleet, and in September last year – some months before any request was received – we began the disposal strategy. We then worked with Airbus, the manufacturer of the helicopter, to establish whether there was any existing users that were interested in the air frames, and there were none.
We then contracted NATO Helicopter Industries to do a global scan of the market to see if anyone was interested in buying the air frames who was a new customer. There was zero interest in buying the air frames. Therefore, the best value for taxpayers was to disassemble the aircraft and to begin selling the spare parts. Because the other option would have been to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to Airbus Australia to maintain these aircraft in a flying condition when there was no prospect that they would be flying again for the Australian Army.
SALLY SARA: So this language that we’ve heard used about having them dismantle and then buried, is that correct?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, the air frames will be disposed of in an environmentally safe manner, and the spare parts will be sold to existing users of other variants of this helicopter because no-one is interested in buying the air frames. And the reason that’s the case is these aircraft have a very chequered history. There’s huge service history with them in terms of being available for use. There’s massive backlogs in getting spare parts, and when you get spare parts they’re very expensive. We’re not the only user of these aircraft that are retiring them – Sweden is retiring theirs, Belgium is retiring theirs, Germany – the biggest user of these helicopters – is constantly complaining about availability. There was no interest in buying the air frames, therefore, the best value for money for the taxpayers was to sell the spare parts and dispose of the air frames.
SALLY SARA: So what’s the situation at the moment, Minister? How many of these Taipans have been dismantled, and how many are still intact, which could be theoretically sent to somewhere like Ukraine?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, my advice from the department is that there are none that are in flying condition. To get any up to flying condition would require a huge investment in taxpayers’ funds, time and resources to do that. I should also really make this really important point: we have multiple crash investigations still going on into the tragic accident in Queensland last year. We have no idea whether these aircraft are safe to fly. Anyone who suggests that these aircraft have been cleared is lying, and they are making, quite frankly, really offensive suggestions at a time when people are really grieving. So I think it’s really important that those crash investigations keep working to establish the cause of that accident. These aircraft aren’t in a flying condition, and we still do not no whether they’re safe to fly.
SALLY SARA: So then moving on to this request from Ukraine, when did that come in, and what has Australia’s answer been to that request?
MINISTER CONROY: So that request came in just before Christmas, and our response is going through the normal process of being developed by the Department of Defence. I would make the point, again: that request came in three months after the disposal strategy began, three months after these aircraft were grounded, three months after maintenance ceased on these aircraft. The aircraft aren’t in flying condition and we have not established whether they’re safe to fly. But a response will be provided through the normal channels to the Ukrainian government.
And I would make the point that we remain steadfast in our support for the struggle of the Ukrainian people against Putin’s illegal invasion. We’ve provided $910 million worth of assistance, including $730 million of military assistance. We just saw the latest contingent of trainers heading to the UK to train Ukrainian citizens in their brave struggle. And we’ll continue to support the government of Ukraine in manners that are appropriate.
SALLY SARA: So just going back, if these – if none of these helicopters are in flying condition and they’d already been dismantled, my question would be, if you got this request on the 17th of December, it’s now a month later. If you know those helicopters are not available, why a month later has a response still not been sent to Ukraine saying, “Sorry, we don’t have them”? I’m wondering about that?
MINISTER CONROY: Yeah, no, it’s a fair question. And the response is going through the normal process of being worked up. This is not an extraordinary time frame for a response of this kind. Again, a response will be given in due course, but I’m being very clear with your listeners about what is the best use of taxpayers’ money and what is the most appropriate response around aircraft safety.
SALLY SARA: Hindsight is a beautiful thing. In retrospect should we have asked the Ukrainians – or did we ask them – earlier, “Do you want them? Do you want the Taipans?”
MINISTER CONROY: Well, again, I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals, but, one, you’re suggesting that we approach a government when we have no idea whether these aircraft are safe to fly. And I do want to return to that point. We still do not know whether these aircraft are safe to fly. We will not know that until the crash investigations are concluded. Anyone who suggests that they are cleared is either grievously misinformed or lying, and they’re being very disrespectful to people who are doing it quite tough at this time.
And, importantly, we did scan the market. We did commission NATO Helicopter Industries, who has the greatest interest in continuing this fleet’s operation because they’re the manufacture of them, and they could not find a single country interested in buying these aircraft. Not a single country.
SALLY SARA: But that’s the part that I don’t understand. If we were scanning the market to sell these things, if we could scan other countries to see if they wanted them, why weren’t we also asking Ukraine? If they were safe enough to put on the market, why were they not safe enough to send to Ukraine?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, they were safe enough to see if anyone was interested in buying them should the crash investigation clear them. A sale process would take months, if not years. These things aren’t done quickly. So the point of scanning the market was to see if anyone was interested in the air frames intact. No-one was in terms of buying them. Therefore, the best value for money for taxpayers was to disassemble them, not maintain them - because the alternatives which people are now suggesting is we should have paid a defence contractor hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain these aircraft in flying condition while we worked out what to do with them when we knew we were retiring them. We knew we were replacing them with Black Hawks because the performance of the MRH-90s has been appalling. That was not a good use of taxpayers’ money. And that process was ongoing for a number of months before Ukraine –
SALLY SARA: But, Minister, just to go back, just so that I understand clearly – sorry for interrupting – we were scanning the market for buyers for helicopters that at that stage we didn’t know if they were actually safe to sell?
MINISTER CONROY: Yeah, and the plan would be if they were cleared then we would have sold them to a – well, we would have considered because obviously you’ve got to be careful who you sell Defence equipment to – but if they’d been cleared through the crash safety investigations, which are still ongoing, we would have been in a position to sell those aircraft to one of those other countries. But, again, no-one was interested in buying them, therefore, the best value for money for taxpayers was to immediately start disassembling them and look at selling the spare parts.
So I agree with you completely – I just want to emphasise this point – that we would not have sold them if the crash safety investigation had concluded or would conclude that there was a massive issue with their flying.
SALLY SARA: Minister, just finally, Ukraine has said that it’s confident that it can mitigate any of the challenges faced by Australia with the helicopters. And obviously they’re in an urgent conflict situation. Why doesn’t Australia give Ukraine a chance and say, “If you want them, take them?”
MINISTER CONROY: Well, again, that letter referred to the availability issue, so the normal maintenance issue rather than the actual crash. And, again, we do not know whether they’re safe to fly. Secondly, to get them into a condition to provide to the Ukrainian government would require considerable taxpayers’ expense and time and resources. And that was not a good use of taxpayers’ money.
We’re providing $910 million worth of assistance to Ukraine, including ADF personnel training their civilians rights now, and we’ll continue to consider requests where they’re appropriate. But I really just find it quite incredible that people are suggesting that we should provide aircraft to Ukraine that we still have no idea are safe to fly.
SALLY SARA: Minister, I do need to ask you about one other issue – and that is the Red Sea. What’s your reaction to the US relisting the Houthis as designated global terrorists? Will Australia be doing the same?
MINISTER CONROY: Look, I – that’s not my portfolio responsibility. So it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that at this time.
SALLY SARA: The opposition has called on the government to relist them as a terrorist organisation. Is that something the government will be discussing to your knowledge?
MINISTER CONROY: Well, again, I’m not going to engage in that process. I haven’t been engaged in those conversations. It’s not in my Ministerial purview and it would be disrespectful to my colleagues for me to be commenting out of turn on that.
SALLY SARA: Minister, time is against us. Thank you very much for coming on RN Breakfast.
MINISTER CONROY: Thank you. Have a great morning. Bye-bye.
SALLY SARA: That is the Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy on Breakfast.