Now is not the time to buy lots of heavy armoured vehicles
23 Mar 2022|

It’s disturbing to see $18–27 billion of Australian government money about to be spent on more than 400 heavily armoured ‘infantry fighting vehicles’ when we’re busily watching yet another conflict in which military vehicles like these are being destroyed in numbers by cheap and readily available anti-armour missiles and armed drones.

The Russian ‘combined arms’ military machine depends on its armoured vehicles—tanks, mobile artillery and infantry fighting vehicles, and is doing so now in Putin’s war in Ukraine.

This military machine is capable of devasting destruction of civilian infrastructure and urban settlements. It might also perform well if it were faced with a similarly equipped military that chose to fight it the same way it fights. But it is proving highly vulnerable to a Ukrainian military that learned how the Russians equip themselves and fight from its experience of defeat in 2014, and is targeting the vulnerabilities that the Russian combined-arms approach involves—notably, the simple fact that big metal boxes with people in them can be destroyed by effective but cheap human- and drone-launched missiles.

The Ukrainians are using NATO-supplied stocks of weapons like Javelin and NLAW (next-generation light anti-tank weapon) missiles, loitering munitions and small numbers of drones, including the Turkish armed drones. World media is awash with images of destroyed Russian armoured vehicles. Bloomberg reports that ‘St Javelin’ is destroying even the most modern Russian tanks and armoured vehicles. US officials and others are noting that ‘Ukraine has made “terrific” use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles, which can loiter over tanks and artillery and destroy them with devastatingly accurate missile fire’.

This isn’t new news. The small Azerbaijani military, funded by a country with a GDP that’s about 3% of Australia’s, won its 2020 war with its neighbour, Armenia, with a similarly devastating set of attacks on Armenian armoured vehicles and other military targets like brigade headquarters and logistics functions. It did so, just like the Ukrainians, with large volumes of cheap, consumable armed drones, missiles and multiple launch rocket systems, not with the type of heavy armoured formations and all the enabling and supporting systems that make up the Australian Army’s planned approach.

And the Israeli military too has shifted it approach from pushing armoured forces supported by infantry and missiles into dangerous environments—in places like Lebanon and Gaza—to an approach of ‘manouevre warfare’ where the manouevring forces operating against its adversaries are missiles, loitering munitions and drones, armed and unarmed, all laced together with intelligence collection and targeting systems. Israeli armour is a defensive asset to help withstand attacks against Israeli soil, and now this armour is getting burdened with ever-increasing and expensive self-protection systems—because of its vulnerability.

So, what are the Azerbaijanis, the Ukrainians and the Israelis missing about the value of heavy armour in war that makes Australia’s planned $27 billion investment make sense, despite the evidence in our world?

Well, it seems that we’ll just do things better than the Armenians, Russians and Israelis, meaning that our use of armour will be successful when theirs wasn’t. Australia’s infantry fighting vehicles will have self-protection that includes ‘counter unmanned aerial systems’ weapons and other systems, perhaps even future ‘directed energy’ systems.

The problem here is that this is exactly the approach that US and other analysts already told us the Russians were using.

In Ukraine, anti-tank weapons are being fired by soldiers on foot, not from armoured vehicles. We hear that:

The missiles have succeeded despite efforts to defeat them. The Russian military had said, and Pentagon leadership believed, that a defensive system on the newest T-90 tanks was capable of sensing and destroying anti-tank missiles like Javelins and NLAWs in flight. In an apparently new countermeasure, Russian troops are welding improvised cages of parallel steel bars atop tank turrets. Video evidence shows that both defenses, however, have failed.

So, how is now the moment for the Australian government to accept Defence’s advice that the future of our army must lie in equipping it with over 400 armoured infantry fighting vehicles? How is it that there is apparently no Australian Army champion of an alternative force structure that learns the lessons of the victors, not the vanquished, in the most recent conflicts involving armour and precision anti-armour weapons?

I don’t know. My experience inside the Australian defence organisation makes me wonder if the issue is that the force design and then tendering, contracting and evaluation processes for this big investment program, called Land 400 Phase 3, are such a long-running, internally complex endeavour that it’s largely unaffected by changes in the external environment. So it is proceeding as originally conceived and without re-evaluation of some central assumptions that now seem at best questionable.

You know some of them because you’ve heard them from advocates of tanks and armoured vehicles: ‘Tanks save lives’, ‘In the last 50 metres, you need a tank’, ‘To take and hold ground, you need tanks and boots on the ground’. Apart from these slogans, however, there seems little answer for the destruction of armour we’ve seen in recent conflicts—and that physical destruction is more compelling than the slogans.

I can see that possessing large numbers of tanks and self-propelled artillery and multiple rocket launchers can give a military the ability to conduct indiscriminate destruction against civilian and military targets, as the Russians are doing in Ukraine. But I cannot make a case for the Australian military fighting that way.

I can also accept that fighting a large, modernised combined-arms military like the Russians on their own terms with a counterpart modernised combined-arms military (a small version of which seems to be the desire motivating Land 400) would be best done with the most capable and well-equipped armoured vehicles you can buy.

But I can’t see why Australia planning to fight an adversary like that on those terms makes any sense, particularly when we have the examples of much more successful alternative concepts and tactics from the Israelis, the Azerbaijanis and now the Ukrainians.

It’s also hard to see where in our region it would happen and how the Australian Defence Force would get there in the numbers necessary. Given Australia’s geography, any plan to use even 100 of these armoured vehicles anywhere in our region would need an entirely different amphibious force to lift and support such operations. The navy’s two large amphibious ships can each deploy about 20 armoured vehicles, and will struggle to put ashore the logistics and sustainment tail they need, let alone wrapping them up in the larger force and systems needed for a combined-arms mission. Combat losses will whittle this small number down fast.

On a narrower issue, one of the two final bidders for this army project is Germany’s Rheinmetall and the other is Korea’s Hanwha. I wonder if the evaluation process is assessing the implications for the project of the radical change in Germany’s defence policy and investment announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz three days into Russia’s war. He launched an urgent effort to reverse the decline in the German military’s capabilities, starting with an injection of €100 billion into the defence budget.

It may be that the Bundeswehr, unlike the Australian Army, understands that investing large amounts in large numbers of armoured vehicles now makes far less sense than it might have in earlier decades. But it’s equally likely that pro-armour advocates and German industry will convince Germany’s government to spend some of this new money on German-built armoured vehicles—at least a major land war in Europe has credibility as a scenario.

It’s very likely that Germany’s design and production capacity and all of Rheinmetall’s supply chains will have to meet their home government’s needs as the first priority, with other customers being important but less critical. We know that supply-chain pressures and disruption are real in our disrupted world. So, while the Land 400 evaluation team might have thought its work was complete, it must now do a detailed assessment of the implications of this radical shift in German policy and security for at least one of the possible providers. Not to do so will affect both the credibility and the viability of any result.

None of this seems likely to get in the way of this long-gestated Defence project that is apparently almost at the end of its years-long tendering and evaluation process. Even at this late point, though, it’s still worth asking if this emperor has any clothes.