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Why buy Abrams Tanks? We need to look at more appropriate options

By Gary Brown - posted Wednesday, 31 March 2004


There is a phenomenon in military acquisitions known as "the replacement syndrome", which is a pattern where an important piece of equipment (eg a warship class) reaches the end of its useful life and a new, but similar type, of warship is acquired without careful consideration of whether it is still necessary to have this type of equipment on inventory.

Many types of defence equipment have long (peacetime) service lives: anything from 20 to 30, or even 40 years. (The F-111 entered service in 1973 and is planned to remain in service for some time to come.) By the time equipment reaches the end of its service life, it can be expected that the strategic, diplomatic, financial and military technology considerations, which prompted its original acquisition, will have undergone significant change. Therefore it is important to reassess carefully all relevant issues before deciding what to do. The replacement syndrome represents a failure in this process.

Over the lengthy operational life of a major item, those who "own" it become accustomed to having it as a key part of their service’s "order of battle". When (for example) a ship wears out they (the navy, in this instance) gear up to persuade government they must have a replacement ship of the same type. In the early 80s there was a bitter and very public battle fought over whether or not to replace Australia's last aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne. Senior navy personnel warned without a carrier, Australia would be vulnerable to all types of threat. One ex-Chief of Navy went so far as to claim that we would no longer have a blue-water navy (one capable of operating away from friendly coasts). In fact, possession of an aircraft carrier had become to the navy a symbol of prestige and an icon.

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The navy lost this battle. The Fraser Coalition initially yielded to navy pressure and decided to acquire a second-hand UK carrier, HMS Invincible. But when after the 1982 Falklands war, the British asked to retain Invincible, the government - worried mainly by cost - began to waver. It was spared the task of announcing its negative decision only when electoral defeat in 1983 meant the incoming Hawke government made the public statement. In the ensuing decades, the predicted operational limitations to the navy have not happened. It is still highly respected and remains an effective blue-water force. The navy has in short, overcome its disappointment at losing this prestige piece from its inventory.

Now history is repeating itself - to a point - but with the army in the starring role. The government has announced Australia is to acquire, at a cost of about A$550 million, 59 American Abrams tanks "to replace the ageing Leopards", which were ordered by the Whitlam Government in 1974.

No doubt anticipating criticisms such as mine, the government offered a "strategic rationale" for this acquisition. The full text can be found here but the key points are:

  • It would be entirely irresponsible of the government to send Australia's young men and women into harms way without giving them adequate protection and the means to achieve their missions.
  • Capable tanks provide the means. Independent scientific studies have shown that, where capable tanks are present, they reduce friendly casualties by a factor of six and almost double the chance of mission success. Because of their precision firepower and excellent sensor systems, they also reduce casualties to innocent bystanders and prevent collateral environmental damage.

These 59 tanks are primarily for enhancing the firepower and protection of our deployed infantry. Given the small number to be acquired, it could hardly be otherwise as there are just enough for two operational squadrons, plus one training squadron. “Real” strength in tanks is not measured in squadrons, or even regiments, but in full-scale armoured divisions each numbering as many as 300 tanks. As we have seen in Iraq in 2003, in Kuwait in 1991, and indeed all the way back to the German “blitzkrieg” of World War II, large, fast-moving formations with air support is the effective way to use tanks offensively.

The Abrams is a tank designed primarily for this role. It is the state-of-the-art contemporary tank, superbly equipped for participation in large-scale offensive operations. Australia, however, is seeking only enhancements to infantry firepower and protection. Our few tanks cannot be used “en masse” in a grand offensive. Instead, they will be deployed in penny-packets to support ground troops. For this modest role, the Abrams is a huge overkill.

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In fact, a much less elaborate and costly weapon, the self-propelled gun (SPG) - which is basically an artillery piece with a motor and some armour, but no traversing turret - is just one example that can provide the desired support. The Germans used these extensively in the defensive fighting later in World War II. In terms of supporting infantry, SPGs are a proven cost-effective alternative. But neither they, nor any alternative to tanks, were even considered during the process, which led to the decision to spend more than half-a-billion dollars on 59 tanks and supporting equipment. Various types of tank were all that was considered. Here is the replacement syndrome hard at work once again.

The tank is the army's aircraft carrier. The impetus for this decision actually comes not from any real strategic case, but from an unholy alliance of the army's conservative prestige-oriented wish to have the "premier" piece of kit an army can have and the government's monomaniacal desire to turn the Australian Defence Force into a fully-fledged subsidiary of the US Armed Forces. In the latter context, it should be noted that our pitiful 59 tanks would be so equipped that they could, on demand, be slotted with minimal pain into a larger American armoured formation. In Minister Hill's own words "a tank that was a capable and credible element of ADF capability, available for deployment within the region and in coalitions further afield".

With the history of the aircraft carrier, it will be ironic indeed if the turn of the political wheel dumps on an incoming Latham government the awkward question of whether to proceed with this expensive and ill considered acquisition or whether to carry out a reassessment of the value of tanks in our current and projected security environment. Our principal security issues do not involve large-scale ground warfare. Against people smugglers or terrorists who want to demolish (for example) the Sydney Harbour Bridge, tanks are no use at all.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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