Because of this project’s long history – Army pulled out of the purchase in 2012 for dubious reasons – it is reassuring to see through the Senate Estimates process that it now remains on track (no pun intended). Prime contractor Hanwha Defense Australia – the South Korean parent company insists on that annoying spelling – received a Request for Tender in September 2020, with a response due on 1 February, a date which was met.
According to Major General Andrew Bottrell, Head Land Systems Division, Defence and Hanwha are now in an Offer Definition and Improvement Activity phase, clearly an advance in process over what used to be merely an Offer Definition Activity – something that amused the Senate. This is to allow additional input from Army and also clarify some aspects of the bid, with the aim of getting the package in the best possible shape to take to government no later than the first quarter next year. What is occurring is an interactive series of workshops designed to de-risk the program.
With an election due sometime in the next 12 months, Army might wish to contemplate pressing the accelerator pedal. Not that the order is in any doubt – Labor is just as committed to the contract as the government – it’s just that elections tend to disrupt the decision-making process, especially if the coalition loses the next one. Given that South Korea sees this matter as highly symbolic – it will be the first Defence contract of any significance awarded to that country despite several previous attempts – there may well be an outbreak of nerves in Seoul should there be a major hiatus.
The initial order will be for 30 tracked 155mm Self Propelled Howitzers – known as the AS-9 Huntsman in the Australian configuration and 15 armoured resupply vehicles built on the same chassis designated the AS-10. The original South Korean version of the SPH is known as the K-9, as are several export variants, including all of those to NATO customers.
The Australian platforms differ slightly in that they are more heavily armoured and will also be equipped with a Remote Weapon Station carrying a heavy machine gun from EOS. The acquisition cost will be around $1.3 billion, with a further $330 million allocated for support. According to the 2020 Force Structure Review, and reaffirmed to the Senate, there will be a second order later in the decade doubling that number of both SPHs and AS-9s. Provision has also been made for a midlife upgrade of the entire fleet.