Australia to retire Taipan helicopter fleet early after crash

A crewman aboard an Australian Army MRH-90 helicopter leans out of the aircraft as it kicks up sand upon landing at Langham Beach during Talisman Saber joint military exercises between Australia and the United States in northeast Australia, July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia said on Friday it would retire its fleet of Taipan helicopters earlier than expected after a crash off its east coast in July during a joint military exercise with the United States that killed four Australian aircrew.

The Taipan fleet will not return to flying operations before the previously planned withdrawal date of December 2024, said Defence Minister Richard Marles, as the government pushes ahead to deploy its new Black Hawk helicopter fleet.

"The first of the 40 Black Hawks that will replace the (Taipan) MRH-90 have arrived and are already flying in Australia. We are focused on seeing their introduction to service as quickly as possible," Marles said in a statement.

Australia in January said it would buy 40 Black Hawk military helicopters, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, for an estimated A$2.8 billion ($1.80 billion).

Black Hawks were set to replace the Australian army's fleet of Taipan helicopters, which have been plagued for years by maintenance issues. Australia had deployed 47 of them since their induction, Marles said.

Taipans are made by France-based NHIndustries, jointly controlled by Airbus and Italy's Leonardo

Airbus and Leonardo did not respond immediately to requests to comment.

Norway last year said it would return the NH90 military helicopters it ordered from NHIndustries because they were either unreliable or delivered late, in a decision the manufacturer called "legally groundless".

Australia had grounded its Taipan fleet after the July crash into the ocean off the coast of Queensland state and said the helicopters would not fly again until the findings from a detailed investigation were published.

"What is now clear is that these investigations, there are four of them, will take some time, one of them has already said it will take a year," Marles told ABC television.

Marles acknowledged there would be "capability challenges" without an operational Taipan fleet and as defence waits for the delivery of more Black Hawks. The first three Black Hawks have arrived in Australia and started flying this month.

To help mitigate further impacts on defence, Marles said Australia had been exploring options to accelerate the delivery of Black Hawks and for aircrew training with allies, including the United States.

($1 = 1.5557 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Jamie Freed)

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