Australia will discard its European-made military helicopters for US-made aircraft, just months after Canberra infuriated Paris by abandoning a deal to purchase French submarines in favour of American vessels.
Peter Dutton, the Australian defence minister, said on Friday that the country would ditch its fleet of MRH-90 Taipan helicopters and had formally sought information from the US on Black Hawk and Seahawks replacements.
The move is the latest in a series of changes Australia has made to its military equipment as it seeks to combat a more assertive China and comes on the heels of its decision to purchase US-made nuclear-powered submarines.
“The performance of the MRH90 Taipan has been an ongoing and well-documented concern for defence and there has been a significant effort at great expense to try to remediate those issues,” Dutton said.
The helicopters were due to remain in operation until 2037 but Dutton told Australian broadcaster 9News that they had been “unreliable”.
He added that the Black Hawks, of which Canberra will buy “up to 40”, were cheaper and would give Australia’s military the ability to compete in the Asia-Pacific region.
“The Taipans weren’t meeting their mark, simple as that,” Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, said at a press conference.
The Taipan helicopters are made by Airbus, which is partly owned by the French state and employs nearly 48,000 people in France.
The decision to abandon the helicopters risks putting greater strain on relations between Canberra and Paris, which deteriorated after Australia ripped up its $90bn agreement with France for 12 diesel-powered submarines. It opted instead to build nuclear-powered vessels with Britain and the US.
In the aftermath, French president Emmanuel Macron called Morrison a liar while a senior adviser to then German chancellor Angela Merkel said the new partnership was an “insult to a Nato partner”.
Sash Tusa, an aerospace and defence analyst at Agency Partners in London, said the political implications of the move to ditch the Taipan helicopters were not as deep as those of the Aukus partnership. He added, however, that the decision was announced at a “very sensitive time” for relations between Australia and France.
“There will be some in France who see this as a continuation of Aukus by other means,” he said.
Australia has been increasing its military commitments in recent months in response to concerns over China. In November, Dutton told The Australian newspaper that it was “inconceivable” that Australia would not come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese invasion.