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Anachronistic Frivolity: Australia’s Recent Tank Purchase

The operating doctrine of many a defence ministry is premised on fatuity. There is the industry prerogative and need for employment. There are the hectoring think tanks writing in oracular tones of warning that the next “strategic” change is peeking around the corner. Purchases of weapons are then made to fight devils foreign and invisible, with the occasional lethal deployment against the local citizenry who misbehave. This often leads to purchases that should put the decision maker in therapy.

Australia’s war-wishing Defence Minister Peter Dutton may be in urgent need of such treatment, but he is unlikely to take up the suggestion, preferring to pursue an arms program of delusional proportions. His mental soundness was not helped by last year’s establishment of AUKUS and the signals of enthusiastic militarism from Washington. Having cut ties with the French defence establishment over what was a trouble-plagued submarine contract, Dutton has been an important figure in ensuring that Australia will continue its naval problems with a future nuclear-powered submarine.

Submarines are seaborne phallic reassurances for the naval arm of defence. Stubbornly expensive and always stressing celebrated potential over proven reality, they stimulate the defence establishment. The land-based forces, however, will also have their toys and stimulants, their own slice of make believe. And Dutton is promising them a few, including tanks.

This month, the minister announced that Australia will be spending A$3.5 billion on 120 tanks and an assortment of other armoured vehicles, including 29 assault breacher vehicles and 17 joint assault bridge vehicles. All will be purchased from the US military machine. This will also include 75 M1A2 main battle tanks, which will replace the 59 Abrams M1A1s, purchased in 2007 and kept in blissful quarantine, untouched by actual combat.

Reading from the script of presumed military relevance, Dutton declared that, “[t]eamed with the Infantry Fighting Vehicle, Combat Engineering Vehicles, and self-propelled howitzers, the new Abrams will give our soldiers the best possibility of success and protection from harm.”

Chief of Army Lieutenant General Rick Burr was also of the view that, “The main battle tank is at the core of the ADF’s Combined Arms Fighting System, which includes infantry, artillery, communications, engineers, attack helicopters and logistics.” Tanks were versatile creatures, able to be “used in a wide range of scenarios, environments and levels of conflict in the region.”

To dispel any notion that this purchase simply confirmed Australian deference and obedience to US military power, the defence minister also claimed that the new Abrams “will incorporate the latest development in Australian sovereign capabilities, including command, control, communications, computers and intelligence systems, and benefit from the intended manufacture of tank ammunition in Australia.”

In other words, once Australia finishes with these cherished, dear imports, adjusted as they are bound to be for the ADF, they are more likely to be extortionately priced museum pieces rather than operable weapons of flexible deployment.

This latest tank infatuation is yet another example of how parts of the ADF and the Australian public service can never be accused of being historically informed, at least in any meaningfully accurate way. The same goes for the current defence minister, hardly a bookworm of the history muse Cleo.

The last time Australia deployed tanks in combat was during the Vietnam War, that other grand failure of military adventurism. They were never used in Australia’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite being lauded as being a necessary vehicle in beating down insurgency movements.

The 2016 Defence White Paper left room for a range of scenarios that make little mention of tanks. It labours over the US-China relationship, “the enduring threat of terrorism” emanating from “ungoverned parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia,” notes the threats posed by “state fragility” and the “emergence of new complex, non-geographic threats, including cyber threats to the security of information and communications systems.” At best, it throws away a line without elaboration: that the ADF will need “tank upgrades and new combat engineering equipment.”

Critics of the purchase have included otherwise hawkish pundits such as Greg Sheridan of The Australian, who spent some of last year shaking his head at the proposed acquisition after it was announced by the US Defence Cooperation Agency. The decision, he opined unleashing his talons, was one of “sheer idiocy,” an “anachronistic frivolity.” Tanks and other heavy, tracked vehicles would “never be of the slightest military use to us.”

Sheridan poses a range of questions. In any confrontation with China, could a tank defend shipping in the South China Sea? Or “take out enemy submarines?” Or “deliver attack missiles over hundreds of kilometres?” His solutions: buy more jets, manufacture more drones, and address naval capabilities.

Others also argue that Dutton, were he to be genuinely interested in Australia’s security and safety, would be spending more time on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and coping with the threats posed by climate change, or investing in pandemic responses. Now that would be a big ask.

The tank fraternity, a gathering of near cultic loyalty, are swooning in triumph. As Peter J. Dean, director of the Defence and Security Institute at the University of Western Australia remarked last year, their membership has never proven shy. Cults tend to show that utility is secondary to the importance of steadfast faith.


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  1. Jack Cade

    I have whinged before about ‘their ABC’ news bulletins comprising at least one-third of stuff that could be straight from Langley. Over the last half-decade we, as an American ‘ally’, have been told about the ‘plight’ of Venezuelans, whose government had the effrontery to refuse to hand its oil reserves to Uncle Sam; the plight of Iranians, whose country objects to foregoing the safety of its own weaponry while the US increases its own stockpile and pumps up those of Israel and Saudi Arabia; the plight of North Koreans, whose appalling government objects to being surrounded by US bases, scattered around Southeast Asia like rat droppings, and builds its own deterrent; the plight of the HongKong residents yearning for democracy that they certainly didn’t enjoy under British rule; the plight of Uighurs, alleged to be forced to produce goods under duress, a bit like the millions of prisoners in US gaols (or ‘jails’ as Murdoch now spells it).
    Uncle Sam, slaughterer innocent Muslims from Libya to Afghanistan and weeps for Uighurs. I could go on. Kazhakstan, unlucky enough to have major resources and long borders with Russia and China. The US, having had its arse kicked again in Afghanistan, is casting around for a war it thinks it can win (but there’s only one Grenada), and Australia is creaming its jeans to join in.
    Sorry about the rant.
    There were no substances involved.

  2. New England Cocky

    @Jack Cade: You are being unreasonable to introduce common sense into any discussion about the Scummo Liarbral Nazional$ fascist misgovernment presently spending the future wealth of the nation buying third rate, out-moded US military equipment at premium prices.

    Perhaps Duddo et al could look at the destruction wrought by the US drone strikes against Iraqi & Afghanistan military & civilian targets driven from Virginia USA (United States of Apartheid), half a world away. Howitzers, tanks, assault breachers and nuclear submarines purchase on the never- never (to be delivered?) are so 1945 military strategy for the long past 1950s Cold War in Europe where countries are land -linked rather than separated by oceans.

    Once again, Scummo, Duddo et al have clearly demonstrated that the Liarbral Nazional$ are unfit for any public office involving the purchase of goods & services.

  3. Stephengb

    I agree the purchase of American cast off weaponry is a bizarre waste of money, unless of course you are a private enterprise brokering and or importing the weapons.

    Let me once again share my thoughts (because this purchase tends to support those thoughts).

    The Russians, the Americans and the Chinese will have no intent to conduct warfare on their own soil.

    So, think, name a land better placed to conduct warfare than on a land, poorly defended, relatively, unpopulated, remarkable flat, and with a benign weather pattern than that mass of land rich in minerals, vast agricultural pottential and far enough away to have no homeland negatives.

    Hmmm I wonder where that could be ?

  4. Fred

    Australia has a solid tradition of blindly following the USA into war (with no success/exit strategy) – on the hollowest of suggestions like fictional “weapons of mass destruction”. Not sure that we won in Afghanistan, Iraq or Vietnam so I don’t understand why we keep on following them. Politicians take us into war and have to end it.

    Not being a great scholar of the art of war I defer to the advice from my woodwork teacher who took time out to talk about practical life issues from “arranging a mortgage” etc. down to “how to argue and fight”. The key take away message on the last was, “think it through fully before raising your fists” and the list of considerations seemed endless. The focus was on strategy, outcomes and consequences – don’t start something unless you have a clear vision of what success is (ideally measurable), what to do if progress towards success doesn’t happen and at least 1 or more exit strategies. So if you wanted to pick a fight with someone you had to consider the ramifications – have you won if you draw blood but your parents have to pay for your opponent’s medical costs and you’re “on report”. School fights reduced while he was there.

    Consider China. It is ludicrous to think that our tanks would make any impact in a battle with them. They probably have more tanks in one of their materiel depots in reserve than we have in total. I’m struggling to conceive a scenario where the tanks would be useful in Australia. Shoulder mounted anti-tank weapons are lethal and cheap compared to tanks. If the tanks are kept out harms way in stand-off mode, you may as well use a howitzer. A totally stupid purchase. The govt appears to be incapable of sensible forward planning when it comes to military hardware.

    Time to get angry. It is OUR money that the LNP is p…ing up the wall. We have to stop the waste. Vote them out.

  5. Rob

    Stumbled across this article, and all I can say is wow, what an uninformed echo chamber.

    Anyone who has any understanding of politics, defence, strategy (or even just has common sense) will know that government acquisitions (including military ones) are informed by thousands of hours of analysis by a range of subject matter experts, as opposed to unqualified opinions by armchair generals and journalists who make money by generating artificial rage through somewhat incoherent arguments.

    The fact that the unclassified version of the White paper makes passing mention of tank upgrades doesn’t make the need less valid. Any document that provides such authoritative, high-level direction is going to be informed by many other documents and reviews – and public versions omit detail or downplay focus areas for very good reasons.

    There are many potential scenarios where tanks are useful – even essential – in achieving the outcomes the government wants, in scenarios that range from improbable to highly probable. Yes, Australian tanks don’t get deployed often (which we should be thankful for), but they are like an insurance policy: we hope we never need them, but will be grateful to have them when we do. A small tank fleet is also essential to future expansion. It would be almost impossible to rapidly build a fleet from nothing (not just in terms of the platforms themselves but also training, doctrine, knowledge of facilities and maintenance, contracts for support, ammunition considerations etc). We have a fleet size that is a trade-off between military capability and budget constraints, that gives us options to respond and expand.

    And they are American. Guess who our most important ally is? The superpower with (mostly) aligned values, a common language and procedures, and a huge manufacturing base for tanks, ammunition and radios…

    Of course tanks aren’t going to shoot submarines (although they can defend narrow shipping routes quite well…) – that isn’t their purpose, and was a dumb comment by Sheridan, dumbly repeated in this article. If he had his way, we would have no tanks… then when a situation that wasn’t a ‘long range island shoot-off’ occurred, he’d be the first to complain that the government left us unprepared.

    Armchair generals – decisions to spend large amounts of the nation’s treasure aren’t taken lightly. If you want to meaningfully contribute to the discussion and influence decisions, educate yourselves and stop the partisan BS.

  6. Michael Taylor

    Rob, if we all agreed with you then we’d just have another echo chamber of partisan BS.

    PS: I appreciate your comment, but not your snide remarks. I’m sure others feel the same, so I don’t expect many people will be rushing to engage with you.

  7. corvusboreus

    Abrams variant purchasing by dutton-creature minions from a corvid perspective.

    Instinctually, i view the buying of tank-things at behest of the dutton-creature as allegorical to a pufferfish with aspirations to shark-bullying trying to aquire bionics and ending up with barnacles.

    I also see both economic and globo-strategic folly in dutton-critter ‘the regional alienator’ raising IOU-backed stakes in a game of international poker against full-pursed rivals.

    I would add that, in terms of saloon atmosphere, whilst dutton-thing has been raising local hackles with trash talk, our stated main opponent has been plying the room with some serious rounds of soft power.

    Beyond such, I reckon motivations beyond profit for the products being pushed come down to corporate-bureaucratic symbiosis within ‘defense’ ordinance contracting and sales (ye good olde industrio-military complex).

    Flogging off M1A2 abrams (+ssp variens) to straya not only keeps US war-factories running when domestic market lags, the provision of current also strengthens US defense case for extra R&D $$$ into next-generational warmongery.

    We not only supply a willing market for production surplus and a potential source of disposeable auxillary ally, we also aid DoD/pentagon can-shaking in providing a cited ‘potential regional near-peer rival-threat’ with rival killbot-tech (urgent upgrades needed).

    The products themselves?

    In terms of current ‘tanks’ (defined as inarguably tankish AFVs with no PC capacity) in the showroom the M1A2 abrams is the tigerest of cats.

    It has 12cm of autoloading boom and 3 types of ratatat in addition to having super-thick multilayered skin featuring every type of protection including 2000+ sunscreen.

    It is also a hulking-profiled gas-guzzling beast of overengineed pedigree with requirements of logistics and entourage rivalling that of the stones on tour.

    We have purchased 19 super-expensive recovery vehicles just to try and keep the 79 uber-expensive MBTs operationally functional.

    The ‘assault breach’ variant (29 on backorder) is an especially strange catalogue selection.

    This is an abrams tank body with a bristly plow on the bow and a couple of harpoon guns that shoot lengths of cable filled with detonatable explosives.

    They are primarily designed for clearing prepepared minefields, which doesnt exactly seem like a ‘defense’ priority.

    I suppose they could have Tim Wilson type crowd control application with slight platform modification and disablement of moral compass.

    As for the 17 bridgelayering variants, I’ll leave them alone in terms of them having some potential value for deployment during civil emergency (eg during flood disasters), but i would suggest that there are far cheaper and simplet options available for such.

    Finally, i would recommend that ordering batchlots from toy catalogues is not good housekeeping when larders are empty and mortgages due.

  8. GL

    I’ve heard that the Reichspud has come with a cunning plan to sink enemy submarines: He’s going to train divers to swim down and knock on the hatches and when said hatches are opened the sub will sink.

  9. corvusboreus

    Based on your own observation of the Morrison government’s modus operandi and track record, do you really cleave to the notion that they base policy and purchase decisions purely on best qualified advice?

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