The Fleet Air Arm (more formally known as the Australian Navy Aviation Group) is the operational part of the Royal Australian Navy responsible for the operation of aircraft aboard ship. The FAA is currently an all helicopter force, operating four separate types of helicopter in both the anti-submarine warfare and anti-ship roles.
Following the Vietnam War, cutbacks saw Sydney decommissioned in 1973. Melbourne continued in service, ultimately operating a mixture of Skyhawks, Trackers and helicopters before she too was paid off on 30 June 1982. The Liberal government intended to replace Melbourne by purchasing HMS Invincible from the UK in 1982. This carrier was to have been named HMAS Australia and would have operated an air group of either AV-8B Harriers or Sea Harriers and helicopters. This sale was cancelled by the British government following the Falklands War, however, and the Australian Government rejected the offer of the obsolete HMS Hermes as a substitute. In December 1982 the Defence Force Development Committee recommended that the Government not purchase a replacement carrier, though the Government deferred a decision on this matter until after the upcoming election. The defeat of the Liberals by Labor in the 1983 Federal election led to a decision not to purchase a replacement for Melbourne. With no aircraft carrier, fixed wing aviation in the RAN ended on 30 June 1983, though rotary wing aviation continued.
Today, the Fleet Air Arm is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the RAN's helicopter force. Helicopters are operated from the frigates of the Adelaide and Anzac classes, and from the RAN's amphibious and support ships.
The Kanimbla class vessels are also capable of operating S-70A Blackhawk, CH-47 Chinook and UH-1 Iroquois helicopters from the Army's 5th Aviation Regiment and 171st Aviation Squadron, and regularly train with these aircraft during amphibious exercises.
The most numerous aircraft is the Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk, with sixteen operated by 816 Squadron; these operate primarily in the ASW role from the Adelaide class frigates, but have a supplementary role in search and rescue and troop transport. In 2001, eleven SH-2G Super Seasprite helicopters were purchased to operate from the Anzac class frigates, which led to the reformation of 805 Squadron (which had been the FAA's last fast jet squadron). The project to upgrade these aircraft and introduce them into service proved unsuccessful, however, and was cancelled in March 2008. The Sea King provides the fleet's medium lift capability, but also performs over the horizon targeting for anti-surface warfare, and search and rescue capability. Prior to 1982, the Sea King was also used in the ASW role from the aircraft carrier Melbourne. The Squirrel was used in an operational capability aboard the guided missile frigates prior to the purchase of the Seahawk. Now, they are used by 723 Squadron for conversion training, as well as deployment from the RAN's hydrographic vessels.
! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|Aircraft ! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|Origin ! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|Type ! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|Versions ! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|In service ! style="text-align: left; background: #aacccc;"|Notes |----- | Sikorsky S-70 | | ASW | Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk | 16 | Operated by 816 Squadron |----- | Westland Sea King | | Transport Helicoper | Westland Sea King MK 50A | 6 | 1 loss over Island Nais on 2 April, 2005 during aid contributions for 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami |----- | MRH 90 | | Transport Helicoper | TTH: Tactical Transport Helicopter | 2 | 6 more to be delivered. |----- | Eurocopter Ecureuil | | Training helicopter | Squirrel AS350BA | 13 | Operated by 723 Squadron |----- | Agusta A109 | | Training helicopter | Augusta A109E | 3 | Operated by 723 Squadron |- |}
The Royal Australian Navy will replace its aging Sea King helicopters with 8 marinised MRH 90 helicopters by 2010. These aircraft are to be purchased as part a joint Army-Navy purchase totalling 46 helicopters.
Under current plans the Royal Australian Navy's Canberra class amphibious vessels will operate up to 16 Army or Navy helicopters. While the ships are potentially capable of operating F-35B (STOVL) aircraft, the Australian Government does not currently intend to purchase this variant of the F-35 design, and the ability to operate STOVL aircraft was not a criterion in the tender which was released for the ships.