That there are ongoing problems with Defence procurement would surprise no one, and much has been written and debated on the topic. Recently, austerity has dominated the discussion, with the focus on budget cuts, and how much investment is needed. I think it’s time to remind ourselves of the fundamental issues that have undermined defence procurement. To do that a slightly broader approach is needed.
The mistakes of the past
Australian defence is dominated by a number of core requirements. These include maintaining a technological edge over potential rivals, interoperability with the United States and delivering capability within planned budgets and timelines. Australia’s record in these areas isn’t as good as it should be. Consider the replacement of the Army’s Blackhawk and the Navy’s Sea King helicopter fleets. Arguably, the best choice would have been to acquire the latest digitised version of the Blackhawk. This would have offered the advantages of minimised retraining of aircrew and mechanics (the Navy already operates S-70 Seahawks), a uniform fleet, significant parts compatibility with existing supply chains, and full interoperability with the United States and other global Black/Seahawk fleet users such as Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. With a true Military-Off-the-Shelf (MOTS) purchase from an active production line, these aircraft would have almost certainly been delivered within budget and on time. Yet the eventual winner emerged as the untested NH-90 from Eurocopter, a project subsequently placed on the infamous ‘Projects of Concern’ list, $500 million over budget, and 18 months behind schedule.
Another puzzling helicopter purchase was the Army’s Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. Perhaps the most likely contender was the Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow. The Longbow was available MOTS from a running production line, had been battle tested, was fully interoperable with the US, and offered a degree of training and maintenance interoperability with other regional users, including Japan, South Korea, Singapore and soon Indonesia. Again, the winner wasn’t what many expected. Rather, Australia purchased the Tiger, also from Eurocopter, and the project was delivered 42 months late with additional added costs. Both of these projects had something in common. The safe options were MOTS, while the unproven choices included ‘assembly’ in Australia—something that created jobs but didn’t necessarily deliver the best capability outcomes.
Bad timing and the failure of planning
Timing in defence procurement is everything, including money. If capabilities aren’t replaced on time, they are either lost, require stopgap solutions or the existing capabilities incur increasingly expensive maintenance while still suffering from reduced effectiveness. Nowhere is this more apparent than with warships. HMA Ships Success and Sirius represent the Navy’s at-sea replenishment capability, a vital capability if Australia is to operate ships far from home. Yet Success is the Navy’s most expensive vessel to operate, costing almost $295,000 per day. The reason is simple: built in the 1980s, Success is operating beyond her Life-of-Type (LOT) and is well overdue for retirement. Sirius (a rapidly acquired stopgap solution after the retirement of the ailing Westralia) has a critical limitation; as a converted civilian tanker it can only carry fuels, rather than also munitions, spares, food or water. The replacement project for Success and Sirius isn’t expected to achieve Initial Operating Capability (IOC), according to the Defence Capability Plan 2012, until 2019 at the earliest. Likewise, the Navy also is faced with the imminent retirement of its 1970s era fleet of Balikpapan class landing craft, with their replacements not slated to be in service until 2023.
The LOT for platforms like warships are not, and should not be, an unknown quantity. Instead, the gaps between replacement and retirement represent a failure of planning by Defence and of commitment by Government. Navy isn’t alone in this regard; the May 2012 announcement of the purchase of 10 C-27J Spartan battlefield transport aircraft is another example. While the RAAF’s Caribou fleet retired in late 2009, the IOC for the replacement C-27J will not be before late 2016. Similarly, the RAAF has been without tankers for its air combat fleet for four years following a delay of replacements for the now retired Boeing 707s.
Belatedly getting it right
Despite past, and some ongoing, failures, Australian Defence procurement isn’t all doom and gloom. There are occasional examples of how to get it right. A past example was the MOTS purchase of 59 Abram tanks from the US. The project delivered a tank offering full compatibility with US forces and supply chains, little technical risk and a world class capability. As a result, it has been labelled (PDF) a success. More recently, the decision to purchase 24 MH-60R ‘Romeo’ Seahawks for the Navy over the naval version of the NH-90 also demonstrates sound judgement. The MH-60R offers full compatibility with the US Navy and its global supply lines, is (almost) a MOTS purchase from a running production line, represents minimal risk, offers training and maintenance commonality with the Navy’s existing S-70 Seahawks, and it will deliver a world class capability to the Navy.
Defence procurement failures have often been explained away on the basis that they are complex, risky, and difficult to achieve without time and cost slippage. For some projects this is certainly true, the Navy’s Future Submarines and the JSF represent cases where for various political and technical reasons options are limited and risks unavoidable. However it would be wrong to assume that this was the case with all defence procurement; simple rules, common sense, and adequate planning can overcome many of these obstacles. For defence procurement, it’s time to go back to basics.
Scott Richardson is a Defence graduate currently placed in the Land Warfare Studies Centre. The views expressed are his alone and do not represent the views of the Australian Army, the Australian Government, or the Department of Defence. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.