Australia’s new tanks are overkill and overweight
22 Jun 2021|

Australia, according to an unremarkable line item in the May federal budget, is making its first purchase of new tanks in almost 15 years with the upgrade of the army’s M1 Abrams tank fleet. While the new purchase has ignited some debate about the utility of tanks for Australia’s defence, it is also indicative of the wider strategic quagmire modern armoured vehicles are stuck in.

Australia’s modest $2.5 billion upgrade to the fleet will see its 75 M1A1 Abrams tanks replaced with the most up-to-date model, the M1A2 SEPv3, as well new engineering and recovery vehicles based on the M1 Abrams chassis. The SEPv3 model boasts a suite of new hardware, including a ‘smart’ gun that can fire programmable munitions, better sensor and communications equipment, and a remote-controlled turret.

The tanks sold to Australia will also include an as-yet-unknown ‘unique’ armour package ditching the standard depleted uranium armour for something more politically and environmentally friendly. The SEPv3s also use both explosive reactive armour and the Israeli-made Trophy active protection system. Explosive armour is widely used on most modern tanks and deflects hits by exploding outward when impacted, while the Trophy system protects armoured vehicles from missiles and rockets by detecting and intercepting incoming threats with a blast of small projectiles.

The Australian’s Greg Sheridan has led the criticism of the purchase based on the argument that the army simply doesn’t use tanks. Australia’s last deployment of tanks was in the Vietnam War and tanks won’t be useful in a major conflict in the Asia–Pacific, which will likely be fought mainly by air and naval assets.

Compounding the issue is that at 70 tonnes the Abrams tanks are notoriously heavy—and the SEPv3 models are even heavier. They’re too heavy for our amphibious landing boats and for many of the underdeveloped or degraded roads and bridges in our near region, as well as in large parts of northern Australia.

But, as Liberal senator and former general Jim Molan points out, infantry also can’t go without tanks. Armoured vehicles provide valuable direct fire support capabilities that other platforms, even infantry fighting vehicles, can’t replicate. Molan rightly criticises Australia’s decision not to deploy them to Afghanistan, even as Canadian and Danish tanks proved highly valuable against insurgents—although, to be fair to the army, even the US didn’t deploy tanks in Afghanistan until 2010, and then only a small contingent.

As much as I agree with Sheridan’s criticism of the dogged inflexibility and strategic delusion of Australia’s defence planners, the ‘steady as she goes’ decision to upgrade but otherwise not change Australia’s tanks and their use doctrine is part of a wider holding pattern that tanks as a platform are stuck in.

The M1A2 SEPv3 is just the latest in a line of life-extension upgrades for the M1 Abrams platform, which is expected to be in service in the US until at least 2030, with further upgrades planned. Other countries are taking half-steps or beginning slow development processes. The French and Germans are in the early stages of development of a ‘main ground combat system’ to replace their respective Leclerc and Leopard 2 platforms by 2040. It so far appears to be a consolidation of current capabilities but may have an unmanned component. The British have just announced that they’re upgrading their Challenger 2 tanks to ‘Challenger 3’ status, with improved targeting and data systems, and a NATO-standard smooth-bore cannon, but this will just be a conversion of existing tanks, rather than the development of a new platform. Australia’s purchase of upgraded models fits this trend as militaries await development of new technologies and assess the new tactical environment tanks will operate in.

A key attribute of future tanks will be the ability to operate as unmanned platforms. An unmanned version of Russia’s T-14 Armata tank is apparently in development, and the new European tank may have both an unmanned and a drone-launching capability. The UK’s Challenger 3 will have significant updates to its electronic and data bandwidths to allow for potential future upgrades to include an unmanned component. Crucially for Australia’s tank purchase, the M1A2 SEPv3 doesn’t have an unmanned capability.

Future tank platforms may be split between different units, with a manned control unit accompanied by unmanned ‘loyal tankmen’ providing most, if not all, of the firepower. Such platforms have barely entered the concept phase and do little to solve the current challenge of how to deploy today’s heavy tanks.

Sheridan’s critique of the opportunity cost of purchasing the SEPv3 models is valid, notwithstanding Australia’s continued need for the direct-fire support capabilities that tanks provide. Australia’s M1A1s were initially intended to operate until 2035, and it seems likely this upgrade will push the platform’s operating life in Australia out to at least the 2040s. While the army should continue to operate a tank platform, the Abrams is simply too heavy for Australia’s needs, and Defence has missed an opportunity to consider lighter alternatives, such as the US Army’s light tank ‘mobile protected firepower program, which is set to deploy its first units by 2025.

The M1A2 SEPv3 is a continuation of the army’s tank capabilities: fast, powerful, reliable and overkill and overweight for Australia’s needs, with little room to manoeuvre for future developments. Australia isn’t alone maintaining the status quo with its tanks until new technologies and doctrines emerge, but in the complex and challenging new international security environment Australia faces we must be doing more than just treading water.