Attrition: The Tiger Is Not Well

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August 23, 2017: On August 11th Airbus Helicopters advised operators of their Tiger gunships that all of them were potentially unsafe and should be grounded until it can be determined exactly what caused the July 26 crash of a German Tiger helicopter gunship in northern Mali. The Tiger went down during a surveillance mission and the two crew (pilot and weapons officer) were killed. Eyewitnesses and examination of the wreckage indicated the cause was mechanical failure because one of the rotors came off in flight causing the helicopter to go down.

The Tiger has had problems like this in the past and was also considered excessively time-consuming and costly to maintain in a combat zone. In Mali peacekeepers prefer AH-64s but appreciate whatever they can get. In early 2017 Germany agreed to send four Tiger helicopter gunships and four NH90 transport helicopters to Mali to replace the four AH-64 helicopter gunships and three CH-47 transport helicopters the Dutch sent in late 2014 to provide fire support, transportation and medical evacuation for the 5,000 peacekeepers then in northern Mali. Now there are twice as many peacekeepers and while they preferred the larger AH-64a and CH-47s they appreciated the smaller Tiger gunships and smaller helicopter transports which were better than nothing. The Dutch helicopters were durable but not indestructible and the Dutch pointed out in early 2016 that their seven helicopters has suffered a lot of wear and tear and need extensive refurbishment that could not be carried out in Mali. The UN has been trying to get some other Western nation to step forward with replacements since then and Germany was finally persuaded to step in.

A major reason American military helicopters, mainly the AH-64 gunship and transports like the UH-60 and CH-47 are so popular is because they have high readiness rates (percentage of available aircraft able to do their job). These tend to be very high, often 80 percent or more. This has been the case for over fifty years, even for older (in terms of years and flight hours) aircraft. This has proved to be decisive in keeping these older designs selling.

Europe sought to build competitive military helicopters but were never able to match American readiness rates. This is surprising, because European commercial aircraft (AirBus) can do it. But the Tiger helicopter gunship and NH90 transport, meant to compete with the AH-64 gunship and UH-60 have failed. The Tiger entered service in 2003 and the NH90 in 2007 and their low availability rates eventually became a public scandal (embarrassing debate in the French parliament) when it was revealed the Tiger had a 21 percent readiness rate (5.5 year average) and the NH90 had a readiness rate of 40 percent. This came despite years of efforts by the users and manufacturers to raise that rate. The users, who frequently operate from bases shared with American (or European) troops using AH-64s and UH-60s note the differences and are unhappy, as are the troops they support. Those European troops, when given a choice, prefer to be supported by American helicopters. Users of the Tiger and NH90 blame most of the problems on their logistical systems, which take far longer to deliver spare parts than their American counterparts. But even when that is not a problem the European helicopters have a hard time achieving and sustaining readiness rates of 50-60 percent.

 


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