LAND 400 Phase 3
Armoured Fighting Vehicles competition begins in earnest
The release of the Request for Tender (RFT) for up to 450 armoured fighting vehicles (also called infantry fighting vehicles) on August 24 was followed by Army’s much anticipated and highly successful Land Forces conference in Adelaide from September 4 – 6. The timing was not a coincidence and the conference was a very useful opportunity for almost all of the likely bidders for the Mounted Close Combat Capability vehicles to not only showcase their potential solutions but also to enter early discussions with the customer about the way forward.
Army has prioritised the capabilities in the following sequence: 1. Protection; 2. Lethality; 3. Mobility. A preference has been expressed for a tracked vehicle able to carry six fully equipped soldiers and for it to be armed with an inhabited (manned) turret. Tracks are needed because the vehicles must be as tactically manoeuvrable as an M1A1 Main Battle Tank (MBT) so as to enhance combined arms operations.
The logic is that as powerful as MBTs are, to go into combat without infantry support makes them vulnerable. At first glimpse this might be a surprise that a 62 tonne behemoth armed with a 120mm smooth bore gun and powered by a 1,500hp gas turbine would be threatened by very much at all, but the history of combat shows that even large numbers of tanks are at risk from things such as RPG ambushes – particularly from behind – let alone from very powerful anti-tank guided missiles that can be operated from concealed locations by just one or two soldiers with minimal training. This is why Army trains for combined operations, with infantry and tanks working together. Since soldiers on foot would be unable to keep up with fast moving MBTs, they require vehicles to take them into combat – and if they are to be involved in high intensity operations those vehicles need to be heavily protected and well armed.
Army has provided a storyboard explaining the combat roles of the IFVs and other vehicles here: http://www.defence.gov.au/casg/Multimedia/LAND400_CloseCombatStoryboard-9-5562.pdf
Responses are due on March 1, 2019 – and Defence hopes to shortlist about 6 months after that, with contracts signed for the Risk Mitigation Activity (RMA) with the successful companies very soon after. The RMA phase is scheduled to run for about 18 months and in parallel with the trials program there will also be a period of enhanced engagement with Australian industry – the aim of which, according to Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, will be to achieve local content no less than the 55% reached for Phase 2. A Government decision is expected in 2022, with initial operation capability (IOC) expected in the 2024 – 2025 financial year.
Army will initially seek to acquire a fleet of 383 IFVs – with a number of subsets, including command vehicles, engineering, ambulance, repair and joint fires. A further 17 Manoeuvre Support Vehicles will be purchased. In addition, information is being sought about up to 50 amphibious IFVs and also mortar-carrying variants – which explains why the total could be 450 vehicles. The indicative budget is a hefty $15 billion – making this one of the world’s most significant IFV acquisitions and explains why a number of companies are showing serious interest.
Judging by feedback from the possible bidders, there were several surprises – or omissions – in the RFT. The most glaring was the non-technical point of the need to address the commercially important topic of cost recovery for the short-listed bidders. The maths is relatively simple: for those that make the shortlist but do not win the contract they have at risk bidding costs that will approach $100 million each. Army have said that they will only shortlist two companies – again a process similar to that followed for Phase 2. Australia is traditionally an expensive place to bid, but this is becoming ridiculous. Similar to the recently concluded Phase 2 competition, shortlisted bidders will need to supply three IFVs, of which one will be blast tested to the point of destruction.
At the time of writing, Defence have only made a verbal commitment to refunding the “reasonable costs” of the unsuccessful shortlisted company. This is highly unsatisfactory and several bidders made the point to the author that unless Defence comes up with a specific offer in writing then they may withdraw from the competition. Given the well-known sensitivity around this matter – which was also aired during Phase 2 – it is surprising that this was not addressed in the RFT itself.
Another issue that was widely commented on at Land Forces was the preference for an inhabited turret. Many Armies are moving away from this traditional concept as sensor technology races ahead. Indeed, for advanced combat aircraft such as the F-35 it is now acknowledged that imagery data supplied electronically is superior to human vision – especially at night and in conditions of poor visibility. Why Army has expressed a preference for a 20th century approach to a 21st century problem is something of a mystery. Uninhabited turrets can be offered as an option, but by the time the vehicles enter service in the middle of next decade it would be a surprise if an inhabited turret actually made sense.
The possible bidders in alphabetical order are:
BAE Systems with the CV 90. This vehicle is well proven – including in combat – can be equipped with a variety of turrets and is in service with seven nations, including all four Nordic countries. It is in production with around 1,200 built to date. Naturally, BAE Systems has a very large footprint in Australia and the CV 90 will be a strong competitor. They are in the 23 – 35 tonne range, depending on configuration.
General Dynamics Land Systems UK, offering variants of the Ajax. Ajax is a series of tracked armoured vehicles, of which 589 have been ordered by the British Army. They have a stated combat weight of 38 tonnes, with growth potential to 42 tonnes. Questions have been asked about whether it will be able to meet the requirement for 6 fully equipped dismounts (soldiers). The pedigree of the parent company is enormous, with GDLS being the Western world’s largest producer of armoured fighting vehicles.
Hanwha Defence with the KC-21. This 28 tonne vehicle is in series production for the Army of the Republic of Korea and on paper could be a strong contender. It is currently equipped with a 40mm cannon, though there is no reason why other solutions could not be offered. In the past the Australian Army has treated the Koreans very shabbily through the cancelled acquisition of fully compliant AS9 self-propelled 155mm howitzers being acquired under LAND 17. This time around it is to be hoped that they will be treated fairly. The vehicle is at the leading edge of armoured technology and will come with a very high level of Australian Industry Content. The relatively light weight of the K-21 should not be mistaken for a lack of protection. On the contrary, Hanwha Defense – one of the world’s leading high technology companies – along with the Korean Government has invested heavily in the use of composite and special armour to achieve very high levels of survivability without compromising agility.
PSM with the Puma. This is an interesting possibility. The Puma is a German thoroughbred IFV featuring an uninhabited turret, very high levels of protection and an impressive power-to-weight ratio. The PSM consortium is made up of two of the world’s leading armoured vehicle manufacturers: Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall. The German Army has ordered 405 of them, of which around 200 have been delivered. They have a crew of three plus six dismounts and can weigh up to 43 tonnes – though with highly modular armour they are air transportable on A400Ms at much lower weights. They could be a very strong bidder – if PSM decides to proceed. Against the Puma is the Australian Army’s stated preference for an inhabited turret, commented on previously. A Puma with an uninhabited turret is obviously the way of the future – but will the company be prepared to risk losing a significant amount of money gambling on Army updating their preferences?
Rheinmetall with the Lynx. This is another interesting possibility. All of the other bidders are offering vehicles that are in production – and whose origins go back some time. The Lynx is a new development that can be tailored specifically to Army’s requirements – and the one on display at Land Forces was imposingly large, with a minimum weight of 43 tonnes, which is a consequence of striving for enhanced levels of protection. So far only a few prototypes have been built – so for the Army to select it would be something of a leap of faith since it does not yet have a launch customer and therefore is not in series production. However, the technical expertise of Rheinmetall is enormous – and they have won LAND 400 Phase 2 with the 8×8 ‘Boxer’. If Australia does select the Lynx, the first production line could be established locally making Australia a possible exporter of a new generation IFV to countries that have no interest in setting up their own Lynx production line.
If both the Puma and Lynx are offered it will be an interesting case of Rheinmetall competing with itself.
Even from such a brief overview, it can be seen that all of the bidders tick many of the required capability boxes. However, it is by no means certain that all will lodge bids, so the Army might have a reduced field from which to shortlist.