The crash of a Sea King helicopter on Nias has some deep-seated causes in the way we under-fund our defence force

It is too early to speculate as to the exact cause of the Sea King helicopter crash on Nias but a key question must inevitably be why we have made our Navy continue to operate such old aircraft.

Our considerable humanitarian assistance to Indonesia over the last three months has justifiably made Australians proud of our national compassion and our practical application of regional good citizenship.

The tragic crash of a Navy Sea King helicopter on Nias Island off north western Sumatra on 01 April 2005 is, however, a timely reminder that defence force service remains inherently dangerous, even in times of relative peace. It also reminds us that our national pride and reputation often come at a high price paid by our defence force.

Over the last three decades significantly more personnel have been killed, wounded and injured in peacekeeping missions, humanitarian assistance operations and day-to-day training than have been lost in combat.

It is too early to speculate in detail on the specific causes of the crash on Nias.

Indeed detailed speculation at this juncture distresses the families of those killed to no public or private benefit.

Such speculation might also might prejudice the objectivity of subsequent official inquiries.

The specific causes of the crash will be addressed by a military airworthiness investigation into the technical and air safety issues involved.

The overall incident, including the contributory and general causes, will be investigated by a defence force Board of Inquiry.

A civil coronial inquiry by the NSW Coroner will examine the causes of death in both specific and more general terms.

These inquiries are intended to prevent repetition of such accidents where they can be prevented, enhance future operational effectiveness, comfort the bereaved families, and maintain or restore morale and team confidence among the comrades of those killed.

It is worth noting that the conduct of such investigations and inquiries by the defence force during the last decade or so has been recently examined by a joint parliamentary committee inquiry, with the committee’s report due out soon.

Some of the testimony to this inquiry has been so harrowing that Hansard reporters have required counseling, and the report itself is likely to be scathing in some of its criticism and wide-ranging in its recommendations.

The ADF has picked up its game in the last few years in this regard, and the juxtaposition of these two events is likely to mean even more rigour will be applied to this particular crash investigation.

In general terms, while the defence force has been unusually busy in recent times, it is unlikely the crash is a sign of operational strain, either overall or in the case of HMAS Kanimbla and her embarked aircraft.

Commonsense also rules out some possible general causes of aircraft crash such as gunfire, collision with another aircraft or bird strike.

Furthermore, given the known circumstances of experienced, rested and well-motivated aircrew, high cloud, clear visibility and good light, it appears likely that human error or weather conditions were not prime or even contributory causes.

The remaining obvious theoretical causes are collision with unseen ground obstacles (trees, power lines, etc), overloading, wind shear or catastrophic mechanical failure but only the inquiries can really provide the answers many Australians appear to be asking.

The last possibility will obviously be seriously considered by the various inquiries.

Notwithstanding the efforts the Navy puts into maintenance and safety, and the Sea King's generally good operational and safety records, the Sea King did first enter Australian naval service aboard our last aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, in 1975.

Helicopters used in the maritime and amphibious role are particularly hard run and the Sea Kings are no exception although the overall flying hours of the Sea King fleet are not excessive for helicopters of this age.

Following Melbourne’s scrapping in 1982, the Sea Kings did not regularly go to sea until the amphibious transports Manoora and Kanimbla became operational in 2000.

They lost their anti-submarine warfare role in 1995 but have continued to fulfil a very useful utility and transport function despite most navy ships being much too small to carry or indeed even land helicopters of their size.

Several plans to replace the Sea Kings have been formulated over the last decade.

One option is to replace the Sea Kings with a new, lighter and less capable helicopter around 2008, perhaps even a leased aircraft.

Another plan is to replace them in the 2010-2015 timeframe with a more modern utility helicopter such as the maritime version of the NH-90 trooplift helicopters recently ordered for the Army.

Replacement of the Sea King fleet should obviously be integrated with the overall plan to standardise helicopter types across the ADF as far as possible for logistic, maintenance and operational reasons, and to reduce the ADF's overall number of different helicopter types from nine to five.

Despite avionics upgrades the Sea Kings should really have been replaced some 5-10 years ago as originally scheduled.

The Navy’s inability to do so is yet another result of our static or declining investment in defence capability renewal and improvement over the last three decades.

This in turn results from governments of both political persuasions choosing to skimp on defence to fund large and escalating increases in social welfare, health and education spending. In real and comparative terms, defence spending has remained static or has declined for three decades whereas spending in these other areas has rocketed.

The chronological age of the Sea Kings is not the problem per se.

They are still safe to fly but not as safe in a crash as modern helicopters.

If this tragedy was due even in part to the outmoded crashworthiness standards of the aircraft all Australians are responsible for these deaths.

We are the ones who sell our votes to governments that spend money on things that directly comfort us now rather than the things that protect us currently and for the future.

As last year’s Black Hawk crash in Queensland showed — where the aircraft was totally destroyed but all eight of those aboard walked or were dragged away alive — modern helicopters enjoy significantly higher standards of crashworthiness.

The crash in Nias should prompt the government to urgently replace the Sea Kings with modern aircraft of similar size and capacity.

The amphibious transports Manoora and Kanimbla have only sufficient hangarage to carry two Sea Kings each and can only refuel and launch one at a time.

The hangars are also too small to allow easy maintenance when at sea, especially for the more detailed engineering procedures.

The tragedy on Nias also emphasises the importance of the next generation of amphibious ships being big enough to carry and flexibly operate more helicopters, in order to alleviate the operational tempo, and tactical, maintenance and logistic pressures, that can be caused aboard the smaller and now quite old Manoora and Kanimbla.

We owe it to the men and women of our defence force not to increase the inherent risk to their lives by making them also have to cope with platforms and equipment that are far too often too cheap, outmoded, too small or even obsolescent.