Self-propelled howitzers scrapped.

Byline: Kym Bergmann / Canberra

The largest single project to be cancelled in the budget – as opposed to deferred – were Self-Propelled Howitzers (SPH) at a stated saving of $225 million. APDR has been tracking this acquisition, designated LAND 17 Phase 1C, for years and has smelt a rat for a long time. It has been clear that since at least 2008 that Army and sections of the Defence bureaucracy did not like the outcome of their competitive tender process and did everything in their power to avoid signing a contract with the preferred bidder.

Even in defending the announcement on Sky News, Stephen Smith continued a long tradition of disinformation – some would say lies – about this matter. The Minister explained:

“There were issues with the self-propelled howitzer, including the type of ammunition that we could use, but also it’s 80 tonnes and it can’t be moved other than by its own propulsion.”

The first and most absurd howler in this statement is the weight claim. The preferred vehicle – the Raytheon Australia / Samsung Techwin AS/9 – comes in at just under 50 tonnes. It is lighter than an M1A1 Main Battle Tank – of which Australia has 59 – and can be moved by low loader, C-17 transport aircraft and anything else that can shift an MBT. The Minister has either made up this nonsense or he is simply parroting demonstrable rubbish produced by the Department.

The second matter he alludes to is ammunition compatibility. This seems to refer to a Departmental internal study that has breathlessly concluded that ammunition for an existing 39 calibre howitzer will not deliver adequate range when fired from the AS/9. That is hardly a surprise because the AS/9 uses a longer 52 calibre barrel and simply requires the ammunition to match. Again, either the Minister or the Department seems to operate in isolation from inconvenient things called facts.

In evidence given to Senate Estimates, Chief of Army LT GEN David Morrison agreed with the statement that the SPHs had been dropped because of financial cutbacks, saying on May 29:

“I do not believe that there is any need to prevaricate in answering. The simple answer is yes.”

The General then went on to explain that there were acceptable substitutes in the form of the M-777 towed howitzer, currently being acquired from the US under a Foreign Military Sales contract. The General alluded to changed circumstances but did not explain in detail what they were. The true story is far murkier and does no credit to Defence.

It is very difficult to see what has changed since the process to acquire SPHs started in 2006 when this capability was deemed to be a vital element of the new doctrine of Hardening and Networking the Army. What did change was Army’s thinking that they wanted a tracked system rather than a wheeled solution, which had been their original preference. After seeing a tracked, armoured Dutch PzH2000 based at Tarin Kowt lobbying shells into the distance, the powers that be decided they wanted one of those. Accordingly, the tender process was “tweaked” to exclude anything other than tracked solutions.

But then things went adrift. As APDR has amply reported on previous occasions, it seemed that only the PzH 2000 would do. Once it became clear that the AS/9 was the only product meeting Army’s own requirements, Defence slowed down the acquisition to an extent that would have been comical if the matter was not so serious. Process was added on to process, delay followed delay – all while the Department continued to assert that everything was above board and in accordance with Defence Capability Plan schedules. Defence itself has spent $11 million on this wasted process.

Rather like a spoilt child in a toyshop, Defence only wanted one brand of ray gun or tricycle and obstinately refused to accept any substitute. An AS/9 was brought to Australia for firing trials at Port Wakefield, but to no avail. Local SMEs contributed world-leading track technology and add-on armour. Prime contractor Raytheon Australia demonstrated end-to-end functionality of firing the Excalibur 155mm precision-guided round, produced by the company’s US parent.

None of these things made the slightest bit of difference to the eventual outcome. Defence has been prepared to drag out the process until eternity – waiting until finally circumstances have enabled them to recommend to an obliging and compliant Minister that he terminate the acquisition – to the eternal shame of all those involved.



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