Land 400 combat reconnaissance vehicles: another disastrously wasteful defence purchase?
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Land 400 combat reconnaissance vehicles: another disastrously wasteful defence purchase?

Bureaucratic procedures exist to prevent mistakes. Sometimes, however, it's the very implementation of rigorous process that conspires to produce a debacle.

That's the case with the army's biggest ever equipment project, Land 400. Because it's a huge $20 billion plan to buy armoured vehicles, each and every decision point on the long path to choosing the combat reconnaissance vehicles has been carefully mapped out. The team doing the evaluations are experts. None of this, however, necessarily guarantees the right overall outcome.

What a bureaucracy produces will depend on what's fed in – and that's the problem. A series of small, safe, individual decisions, taken for all the right reasons, are resulting in a cumulative disaster: a vehicle that won't be able to complete its mission and do the job we need it for.

To comprehend why, you need to understand the iron triangle of armoured-vehicle design. A natural "law", this explains both tank design and why (safe) Volvos look ugly. Everything is a trade-off. Increasing protection reduces mobility or firepower. Or, in the case of Volvos, style.

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A combat reconnaissance vehicle outside Parliament last month. This model was built by Rheinmetall, which is a contender to build the new vehicles.

A combat reconnaissance vehicle outside Parliament last month. This model was built by Rheinmetall, which is a contender to build the new vehicles.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

These parameters are set in (reinforced) steel. If, for example, you want a faster vehicle, you'll need to jettison some armour to reduce weight. A bigger gun requires a larger turret, which means you'll need to sacrifice protection. It's impossible to have everything. Keep things in balance, and you end up with a vehicle that can achieve its mission.

Unfortunately, for all the right reasons, the process is now determining the outcome for the Land 400.

Examine that three-sided triangle again. Which of those elements would you privilege? Probably protection. Keep the crew safe, because no politician likes attending military funerals. If a bit more armour will make the vehicle safer, that's what they'll choose. That's why we've mandated STANAG 6, the best armour protection possible. Soldiers joke the only reason we've chosen this is because there is no STANAG 7.

In World War II, the Germans called the US Sherman tanks "Ronsons", after the cigarette lighter with the advertising jingle insisting it "lights first time, every time." So did the tanks. Crews couldn't escape their flaming vehicles, so it made sense to put a premium on survivability.

But the iron triangle means something must give, and that's mobility. The vehicle's heavier. This limits where it can go, meaning it will be easier for the enemy to predict its route. So mines and improvised bombs proliferate on the roads, requiring more protection, further constricting mobility. The result is a vehicle that's very safe but not good at its job. This annuls its primary mission: reconnaissance.

You might have protected the crew, but the infantry depending on armoured support to achieve its task become more exposed. It's a perfect irony. Decisions made to protect our diggers render them more vulnerable. The issues keep compounding.

Bigger vehicles will cost more, so there'll be fewer of them. They'll use more fuel, adding to resupply complications in the field. Heavier vehicles are harder to transport over rivers and up hills. They can't be flown into small airfields, which means they won't be available if that's where they're needed. They'll be like our tank regiment, which last saw service in Vietnam. We haven't been able to transport them to an operational area since, so they've remained in the Northern Territory, safe but useless.

Bureaucracy is not, in and of itself, necessarily a bad thing. In this instance, the army has decided to stress the protection of our armoured crews, and that's good. Unfortunately, achieving the mission is becoming a very poor second priority.

The people working on Land 400 can see it's heading off the rails, yet no one will blow the whistle. Too much has already been invested to back out. No one individual responsibility and no one wants to admit something that will cripple their promotion prospects. Besides, the problem is bureaucratic. It resides at the heart of the way we do things, like buying equipment. We call people "commanders" but then take away their ability to influence outcomes or, in the military's case, fight the way they need.

This is just one issue bedevilling the army. The real tragedy is that the current hierarchy inherited this flawed process. It's been left to carry the baby and so it's nursing it through. Particularly because this procurement disaster follows on the heels of another: the appalling saga of the self-propelled gun.

When we think about fighting, we tend to focus on close combat: the soldier and the tank. Although decisive, these aren't the real killers. The weapons that bring maximum death to the battlefield are indirect: artillery shells and air-delivered munitions. A recent, exhaustive investigation recommended we buy a South Korean self-propelled artillery gun. Some senior officers felt we should buy German. We've ended up with nothing.

No self-propelled artillery, the wrong armoured vehicles, serious issues with the helicopter fleet, and only the most rudimentary ability (in language skills and experience) to operate in our region.

Individually, these problems aren't anyone's fault. Combined, they represent a massive failure of the system. When will we admit that Defence is failing our soldiers?

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra author and columnist.

Nic Stuart is a Canberra writer.

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