Washington: The US is speeding the delivery of a much-needed fleet of Black Hawk helicopters to Australia in the face of China’s “bullying and destabilising actions” in the Indo-Pacific.
After meeting Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles in Washington on Wednesday (AEDT), Defence Department secretary Lloyd Austin announced that the acquisition of the UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters would be accelerated, helping to bridge a capability gap created when the Albanese government grounded its fleet of 47 MRH-90 Taipan helicopters in September.
The helicopters were grounded after a crash took place during a multinational military exercise in the Whitsundays in July, killing four military officers: Lieutenant Maxwell Nugent, Captain Danniel Lyon, Corporal Alexander Naggs and Warrant Officer Joseph Phillip Laycock.
As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese prepares to visit Beijing this weekend, Austin warned that Australia and the US faced “major shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, including China’s bullying and destabilising actions”.
“We share a vision with our friends across the Indo-Pacific of a region that is free, open and secure, and we’re committed to making that vision a reality,” he added.
Marles, who is in Washington for a two-day visit to lobby Congress members over the AUKUS military pact, welcomed the announcement, which comes as the US becomes increasingly alarmed by a series of collisions and near-misses involving Chinese vessels in contested waters across the Indo-Pacific.
Last week, after two collisions between China and Philippines, Biden warned that the US would be prepared to use force to defend the Philippines in case of an attack in the disputed South China Sea.
Asked what Australia would do if this happened, Marles, who is also defence minister, said: “Australia will continue to work closely with our friends in the region to assert freedom of navigation and the global rules-based order within our region because that is very deeply in Australia’s national interest.”
Marles declined to outline how many Black Hawk helicopters would be fast-tracked by the Pentagon, or how soon they would arrive, other than to say: “We’ve been completely clear that it is a capability challenge that we’ve grounded the fleet … so the speeding up of this procurement is really important”.
The announcement comes days after the prime minister was also in Washington for an official state visit with Biden, where he discussed Australia’s “clear-eyed” view on China and met with about 60 members of Congress to advance the AUKUS legislation by “the end of the year”.
However, Marles was less bullish about the timeline when asked, following his conversations with Lloyd and other defence officials in Washington today.
“My answer to that question is: we are very happy with where this legislative process is up to,” he said. “If this were to pass, it is a once-in-a-generation change.”
Under the AUKUS deal, Australia will buy at least three Virginia-class submarines from the US while building capacity to develop its own locally made nuclear-powered subs, sometime in the 2040s.
However, several pieces of legislation still need to pass Congress to make AUKUS a reality: laws to enable the Virginia-class submarines to be transferred to Australia; a bill that would categorise Australia as a “domestic source” for military production under the US Defence Production Act; and reforms to a complex maze of export controls, so that nuclear technology secrets can be shared with Australia.
Source : The Sydney Morning Herald