Big Story 10

Austria sets aside more than 300 million euros to buy military helicopters

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s government has set aside more than 300 million euros ($341 million) to buy military helicopters including three Blackhawks, it said in a statement on Thursday.

The coalition of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives and the far-right Freedom Party deferred a bigger decision late last year on whether to scrap its fleet of Eurofighter jets, as the two parties could not reach agreement.

The neutral country plans to buy three Blackhawks made by Lockheed Martin unit Sikorsky Aircraft, bringing the size of its fleet of that aircraft to 12, it said in a statement.

“The standard international squadron size of 12 helicopters will thus be reached and the ability to intervene significantly increased,” the government’s statement said.

While Austria does send a small number of soldiers abroad for peacekeeping and other operations, the focus of its armed forces is largely on national disaster relief.

“The armed forces are often called on to help in natural-disaster cases such as flooding in the summer or avalanches in winter,” Kurz said in the statement.

“With this investment package we want to provide the military with technical equipment and ensure that in cases of natural disasters it can provide support to the emergency and rescue services with the best equipment,” he added.

Austria also intends to buy smaller helicopters to replace 50-year-old aircraft that it will soon have to retire but it has yet to choose a model, it added.

A deal with a foreign government rather than a purchase directly from a manufacturer is the preferred option for those helicopters, the statement said, without specifying how many would be bought.

Austrian media including newspaper Der Standard and state broadcaster ORF put that number at 12, adding that the plan for the Blackhawks was also to buy them from another government.

The Bell 429, made by a unit of Textron, the AW109, made by a unit of Italy’s Leonardo, and the H145M made by Airbus are all in the running, they reported.

At least one extra training helicopter is also part of the planned purchases, they added.

A spokesman for the Defence Ministry, which has been put in charge of making the purchases, declined to comment.

Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg