Tanks are only the tip of an impending $40 billion capability iceberg
3 Aug 2021|

The repeated debate about tanks for the Australian Army has flared up once again. The Groundhog Day nature of this phenomenon would be amusing if there wasn’t so much at stake.

I won’t rehash the arguments other than to state upfront that I agree with virtually everything Andrew Davies and Thomas Lonergan wrote in their recent pieces on the capability calculus around tanks. But I will point out one rather large fact that their analyses didn’t emphasise to the degree I feel is necessary: we’re not just talking about $2 billion for new tanks. Rather, we’re talking about a $40 billion program to mechanise the army, as the table below sets out.

Defence’s armoured vehicle acquisition plans

Capability Number of vehicles Budget ($ billion) Status
Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicle 211 5.768 (approved) First tranche of 25 delivered from Europe. Local production commencing in 2022.
Infantry fighting vehicle 450 18.1–27.1 Selection process underway.
M1A2 tank 75 0.6–1.0 Congress notified of potential purchase.
Combat engineering vehicle 29 assault breacher vehicles
18 assault bridges
0.9–1.3 Congress notified of potential purchase.
Self-propelled howitzer 60 howitzers
30 resupply vehicles
4.5–6.8 Restricted request for tender issued to Hanwha for the K-9.
Total 873 30–42  

Rather than arguing about whether the army should be replacing its current 59 Abrams tanks with 75 newer Abrams tanks, we need to be considering whether the mechanisation of the army is a $40 billion good idea that supports Australia’s defence strategy—or a $40 billion opportunity cost iceberg that will cripple the army as a useful, deployable tool of government.

Supporters of armour tend to argue for its tactical utility. A focus on the tactical shouldn’t be surprising; Albert Palazzo has written, ‘A policy of dependence [on powerful allies] also explains Australia’s dearth of experience at the strategic level of war and why its forces have sought excellence at the tactical level’.’

Jim Molan has suggested, for example, that having tanks would have made a difference to the outcome of particular engagements in Afghanistan. That may be true. But it’s also irrelevant. No number of tanks would have made any difference to the outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan because the key drivers of that conflict were not amenable to resolution through tanks.

It’s also irrelevant because, while the army did have tanks at the time, the government decided not to deploy them. The reason for that was that the ultimate purpose of its intervention in Afghanistan was to reinforce the alliance with the US. As in other US-led campaigns, the Australian government had conducted a careful cost–benefit analysis to gain maximum alliance return at the least possible cost in blood and treasure. Certainly, the special forces controversy suggests that it erred in its calculus by excessively relying on one ADF capability. But tanks instead of Special Air Service operators wouldn’t have changed the strategic outcome.

A more sophisticated version of this argument is one that says combined arms are essential to success in land combat. That’s the main driver behind Plan Beersheba, which has given all three of the army’s combat brigades the same structure. This means they all have (or will have) tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured cavalry, self-propelled howitzers and the associated enablers. While I seem to recall suggestions from the army at the time when Beersheba was announced that it wouldn’t come with any additional net cost, the requirement to provide all brigades with those capabilities is of course a major reason for the $40 billion.

This argument is similar to the previous one, but actually orders of magnitude bigger. Essentially it says that if you want an army with any combat utility at all, it needs to fit a particular model adopted by a club of militaries that Australia likes to compare itself with—and the minimum cost of entry to that club is $40 billion so that you can reliably field a combined arms battlegroup.

There are days when having a tank or two (or a combined arms battlegroup) on your side would make a difference. But the same can equally be said about pretty much any other military capability; when you need an air defence missile, like when an anti-ship cruise missile is coming at you at Mach 3, you really need an air defence missile.

That’s the problem with the ‘debate’ about tanks and armour—the complete absence of a strategic context or even operational concepts (though, interestingly, Molan, one of the most forthright advocates of tanks, has long called for a national security strategy). In their absence, I can make the case for any military capability, up to and including aircraft carriers and tactical nuclear weapons. Their absence also makes it impossible to prioritise, whether between armoured vehicles and air defence missiles or any other capability, because you can make the case that anything is useful.

For the past 75 years, Australia has had the luxury of not facing immediate existential threats, so it hasn’t needed to prioritise. When the main task facing the ADF was to provide contributions to US-led taskforces, carefully tailored down-payments to the alliance that minimised the cost in blood and treasure while maximising goodwill, the main force structure determinant was the ability to provide the government with a broad range of viable ‘options’. Since it was accepted by all that the contribution would be small, we could prioritise quality over quantity, particularly qualities that minimised casualties.

The absence of clear and present threats also led to the emphasis on a ‘balanced force’ with a very broad range of capabilities. I won’t repeat the criticisms of a balanced force construct (or criticisms of the criticisms), other than to say that it’s shorthand for, ‘We can’t come up with a prioritisation framework that is persuasive to all stakeholders, so everybody gets a bit of what they want.’

The absence of threat also meant that Defence practised capability-based rather than threat-based force structure planning. In short, this meant Defence could state what it would like to be able to do (which generally looked a lot like what it had been doing for the previous decades), rather than define what it had to do to defeat actual threats. Now that we’re in an era where Defence’s strategic planning documents have identified a threat, should we still be generating balanced, capability-based options involving $40 billion of armour that doesn’t have much utility in the face of that threat?

Advocates of tanks and armour tend to advocate a balanced force, arguing that there will be contingencies in which the government might seeks military response options involving them. But what are they? The mere ability to imagine a scenario where tanks and armour would be useful isn’t enough to justify the resources. I can think of scenarios where armour would be tactically useful, like a battle of Marawi, when the local government seeks assistance from us in the form of heavy land forces. But how strategically useful would that be to Australia, particularly when we can provide other contributions, as we did at Marawi? We can only hope that future Australian governments will not be foolish enough to commit Australian ground forces to yet another unwinnable counterinsurgency; after all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and hoping for a different outcome.

We shouldn’t be structuring the army for pointless wars of choice, yet it’s hard to see the relative value of a mechanised battlegroup in an unavoidable war involving an attack on Australia or a close neighbour by a major power. Just as Davies did, one thing I learned from participating in Defence’s force structuring processes is that efforts to justify heavy land forces in Australia’s very near region were always based on what Davies terms ‘Goldilocks’ scenarios—that is, ones that involve a capable enough enemy to require something more than protected vehicles like the Bushmaster but not so capable they have anti-access capabilities; that are small enough to be dealt with by whatever we could fit on the landing helicopter docks (which isn’t much); that are close enough that the F-35A could provide air cover (which is very close); and that are magically free of the logistics effort that would quickly exhaust Australia’s non-existent sealift capability. And even then, the outcome is at best a tactical victory.

But, as they say, it’s hard to make predictions, particularly about the future. In the end, I fall into a middle position (also known as an intellectual cop-out that probably reveals I imbibed too much of the balanced, capability-based options paradigm in my time in Defence): some armour, but not an army completely built around it. I’m open to tanks and even some self-propelled howitzers, though building them here is an example of defence industry policy gone off the rails. The infantry fighting vehicle is the biggest sinner in the opportunity-cost stakes, not tanks. I’d cancel it, double the number of Boxers we’re already getting for an additional $5 billion (since it is an infantry fighting vehicle anyway, according to other armies that are acquiring it) and put the $15+ billion savings into long-range lethality, preferably forms that can be easily deployed and relocated, and attritable autonomous systems.

But just as urgently, I’d be exploring combined arms concepts that are more relevant to our current threats and geography than those that aim to seize and hold small patches of ground at great cost for little strategic gain.