Australia cancels military helicopter deal, sparks big row with France

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Australia announced on Wednesday it would scrap its fleet of European-made Taipan military helicopters, despite France’s last-ditch lobbying to save the contract. Image Courtesy TBEN

Sydney: Relations between Australia and France have reached a new low. After the 2021 spat when Australia canceled a deal to buy French submarines in 2021, the countries are now at odds over military helicopters.

Australia announced on Wednesday it would scrap its fleet of European-made Taipan military helicopters, despite France’s last-ditch lobbying to save the contract.

Trust between the two countries plummeted in 2021 as Australia’s former Conservative government abruptly tore up an Aus$90 billion (US$62 billion) deal to bolster its navy with French-built submarines.

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At the height of the row, French President Emmanuel Macron accused Australia’s then Prime Minister Scott Morrison of lying about the deal, and Paris recalled its ambassador from Canberra.

Defense Secretary Richard Marles, who is part of a centre-left government elected last year, said on Wednesday the Taipans would be replaced by US Black Hawk helicopters.

Marles said he was confident this would not damage Australia’s relationship with France, which has recovered somewhat since the submarine spat.

“The most important thing here is to deal fairly with the French,” he told national broadcaster TBEN.

“We are confident that this will not interrupt the renewed relationship with France.”

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The French government has a significant stake in Airbus – the European airline company that produces the Taipans – and is urging Australia to keep its 40-strong fleet.

But Marles said the helicopters were plagued with costly repairs.

“We have been struggling with the Taipans for many years in terms of maintenance issues and getting spare parts,” he said.

“We just don’t have the flying hours from the Taipan that we need. We are confident we can get that from the Black Hawks.”

In a statement, Airbus said it “recognizes” the decision and that Australia remains an important market for the company.

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“We are determined to build on our significant presence in the country, together with our customers, partners and government stakeholders,” said an Airbus spokesperson.

Former Prime Minister Morrison reneged on a lucrative submarine contract with France’s Naval Group in September 2021 – opting instead to buy nuclear-powered submarines from Britain or the United States.

Relations remained sour until May last year, when Australia elected new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has moved to patch things up with Paris.

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