Finding the common ground in Australia’s tank debate
14 Apr 2022|

Reflecting on Australia’s armoured vehicle debate, it’s apparent that advocates and sceptics often talk past, rather than to, each other, with a sense of good faith sometimes lacking. The topic often sees the privileging of commentary on specific platforms, like the M1A2 Abrams, rather than discussion of what a relevant system of systems might provide.

Mapping this commentary is important if we’re to stop circling the buoy. We then need to develop and implement innovative concepts for the land force. That’s essential regardless of where one stands on the future of armour: Defence appears set to recapitalise the tank fleet and a decision on eventual infantry fighting vehicle program looms later this year.

Among the group I will describe as the advocates, former major general and senator Jim Molan is perhaps the most prominent. Various Australian Army officers have argued for armoured capabilities across various forums. Recently retired major general Adam Findlay offered a characteristic full-throated defence of armoured vehicles during a recent ASPI event.

Defence is clearly in this camp, too, having just doubled down on armoured vehicle capabilities with its decision to upgrade the main battle tank fleet from the M1A1 to the M1A2 Abrams, along with the acquisition of breaching and bridging variants. A long-anticipated decision to buy as many as 450 IFVs may cement this commitment even more deeply.

Advocates work from the premise that tanks and armoured vehicles are key building blocks of ‘combined arms’ approaches to warfighting—the combination of infantry, armoured vehicles, artillery and other fires, aviation, engineers and so on as the inescapable essence of prosecuting close combat successfully. Related threads emphasise the importance of armour in urban fighting and as an enabler of the close fight or ‘last 400 metres’ of an attack.

These thinkers acknowledge the lethality of anti-armour weapons, loitering munitions and drones but view them as incremental developments in a perpetual tussle between protection and lethality, not as game-changers that render armour irrelevant.

They cite similar and erroneous conclusions about the death of armour after the performance of anti-tank guided missiles during the Yom Kippur War, for example. As always, ‘It was complicated.’ That conflict demonstrated the potentially fearsome lethality of this new class of weapons, but armoured vehicles remained a key part of land forces capable of high-end combat.

The premise underwriting this argument, sometimes but not always articulated, is that the government needs the Australian Defence Force to be able to fight in ‘high-end’ land combat—indeed, that this is non-negotiable. An assumption that needs to be brought to the surface here is the army’s deep institutional belief that the government will inevitably ask it to fight and it must be prepared to carry out that fight.

This view insists that the ‘real world’ will get in the way of elegant deterrence plans. That’s born from the experience of senior officers asked for response options in unexpected crises, starting with East Timor in the late 1990s. It’s also born of the view that serious land capabilities are required because they’re likely to play a role in conflict with a major adversary that remains below escalatory thresholds involving long-range strike missiles and attack submarines. This is congruent with a view that the capacity to wage high-end land combat is fundamental to Australia’s ‘shape, deter, respond’ posture, though the assumptions here run deeper than that policy formulation.

The other key camp we can fairly dub the ‘sceptics’. It has a wider range of voices and ASPI has provided a platform for many of their arguments. ASPI’s own Michael Shoebridge, Marcus Hellyer and Andrew Davies are in this group. Hugh White is another, as is Greg Sheridan of The Australian.

There are two interlocking strands of scepticism. The first questions the utility of tanks and other armoured vehicles in a generalised sense. These analyses tend to point to observations from the 2014 Russia–Ukraine war, the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and the still-evolving 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. For the sceptics, a salient observation is the lethality of modern anti-armour missiles and rockets, cheap drones (including loitering munitions) and long-range artillery, alone and in combination. Sceptics are less convinced that this development is merely incremental and consider that armour may now be a losing proposition.

These thinkers highlight the strategic mobility limitations facing the ADF. Notwithstanding upcoming investments under Defence’s Land 8710 (littoral manoeuvre) program, only a handful of amphibious vessels and strategic-lift aircraft can move armoured vehicles and they’re vulnerable to some of the same things that threaten armoured vehicles. It bears noting that, while our prioritisation of protection in armoured vehicle design has led us to ever heavier vehicles, that result is not inevitable.

The second sceptical strand is best summarised as a question: even if armour is still useful for fighting on land, does the government really want the army to be involved in that kind of fighting? The sceptics look at Mosul and Kyiv and question our capacity for human and material losses. They then look at our region and ask what an appropriate Australian contribution to a major regional conflict would look like.

Their answer is that, in an era of concern about ‘beyond-peer’ threats, our only choice is to focus on strike capabilities (like submarines, offensive cyber and long-range missiles) that might deter an adversary. They highlight the opportunity cost of spending billions on armoured vehicles as opposed to nuclear submarines, autonomous systems, hypersonic weapons, sovereign supply-chain resilience and other worthy priorities. Under this argument, Australia can do with a lighter army capable of less demanding tasks in the near region, and our contribution to a coalition need not involve heavy combat brigades.

Both these perspectives are advanced by serious people who have thought seriously about the army’s role in contemporary Australian defence strategy. Most sceptics are smart and understand that tanks are often valuable in combat. Most advocates are smart and understand that serious land combat is costly and difficult, but they think it’s unavoidable.

This leads me to the task of marking out, in summary, what is actually contentious. What questions are different analysts seeking answers to? I think there are four.

First, what is the future of armoured systems and what is the current and future balance between lethality and protection? This is probably the only place where advocates and sceptics (sometimes) do address each other, but it’s marked by an unhelpful binary. It’s also probably unanswerable to a significant degree. Clearly, the options for armoured vehicles should not be ‘lots’ or ‘none’. So, what is the precise balance we want in the land force and how do we want to employ armoured vehicles?

The one position I will stake out is that any conclusion that armoured vehicles are completely obsolete still seems premature. They are vulnerable in many circumstances to cheaper, lighter weapons, especially if armour is employed amateurishly, as it appears to have been in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and by Russia in Ukraine. But it’s also difficult to envision many forms of offensive ground combat in the absence of any armoured vehicles, and protection measures will evolve in time. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the Australian Army fighting without armoured vehicles in a regional urban environment, like Marawi, against even a moderately well-equipped adversary.

Second, do we want land forces as part of the ‘credible military force’ capable of partaking in ‘high-intensity warfighting’? Do we want the army to be able to partake in major land combat against capable adversaries in the region? Current investments clearly signal that the government’s answer is ‘yes’. We might also ask how land combat might be required to enable other deterrent capabilities like missiles. Consideration of scenarios in which US engagement in a regional conflict is less than complete but Australian interests are considered critical is key here.

Third, how much faith do we have in strike capabilities and their deterrent effect? Much scepticism is directed at the viability of armour on a contemporary battlefield. What about scepticism directed towards critical deterrent capabilities? What if future missile systems or submarines fail us? What if they work in a technical sense but fail to deter, or only deter a certain kind of threat? If we’re not sure of the answers to those questions, what does it mean for the kind of land force we want to retain?

Fourth, what does the future operating concept look like for the land component of the joint force, grounded in our regional geography? What contingencies do we envisage armoured capabilities being a part of the answer to? Of these contingencies, which ones will be answered by relatively ‘traditional’ combined-arms formations and which ones may need armoured vehicles?

Now I await accusations that I have mischaracterised every author mentioned here. A little more good faith would go a long way. Let’s at least agree on what we’re arguing about and stop circling the buoy.