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Op-Ed: Apache selection tells a broader tale of Australia’s defence mindset

Op-Ed: Apache selection tells a broader tale of Australia’s defence mindset

NSW senator and former Major General of the Australian Army, Jim Molan, weighs in on the government’s recent decision to replace the Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter with the Apache Guardian.

NSW senator and former Major General of the Australian Army, Jim Molan, weighs in on the government’s recent decision to replace the Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter with the Apache Guardian.

The intention to purchase the Apache Guardian helicopter is of course the right decision and I congratulate the Minister and our government. It was a decision that should have been made 20 years ago and the Apache was Army’s (and my) preference at that time.

Again, the decision for the Apache or the then Viper should have been made about 10 years ago when it was totally obvious we were getting no combat capability at anything like an affordable cost from the Tiger, but Army leaders procrastinated. Now to the credit of this government and this minister, at least the decision has been made but we will have to wait until 2025 for a phased introduction.


The decision 20 years ago, from my memory, was made by the National Security Committee of Cabinet on the basis that of the two options at the time, the Apache and the Tiger, the makers of the Tiger claimed cheaper operating costs. We combat operators knew what the battle tested and continuously improving Apache offered then and since, we could see how long experience of operating the Apache would provide more reliable cost estimation than a paper aeroplane, but we ended up with the Tiger.

To the credit of the pilots and the engineers in Army, they finally got the aircraft working after about 15 years, but the cost remains prohibitive. Who would have guessed?

Interestingly, the decision says as much about where we are in terms of national security as it does about a new helicopter.

First, disappointingly, the Apache is still being called an Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. As a helicopter pilot and a combat commander, I only had a vague idea what that term meant when it was used 20 years ago.

Our Tiger was the “lighter” of two Eurocopter versions, the other being designed to fight in Europe. We used the term Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter because we spent decades in serious denial that our military at some stage was going to have to fight head-to-head with a demanding enemy.

That time has now arrived and thank Providence our government and the Minister recognise it, at least in this way. If the Tiger was truly an armed reconnaissance helicopter, we used to ask what was it conducting reconnaissance for? Was there something behind the ARH that could fight and defeat an enemy: a very small number of tanks perhaps, some light or pathetically mechanised infantry, some towed artillery that would have lasted minutes in a serious fight?

For most of that period, we who commanded these capabilities and who knew intimately that the combat cupboard was pretty-well bare, acceded to government preference for the term Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter because they were frightened of using the correct name, which was “Attack Helicopter”.

Governments were scared of stating what the aircraft was brought for and how it could be used, so they hid it with vague names. The Apache is an attack helicopter and we should not be afraid to use that term.

In our current strategic environment where war between the US and China is not just possible because both sides are armed to the teeth, but far more likely than most are prepared to admit, thinking like this from a different era where we could pretend that our helicopters did not kill our enemies but were armed just for reconnaissance, reflects a national weakness we cannot afford.

The Apache is an attack helicopter, it is used throughout the world as a combat helicopter to destroy enemies. I was Chief of Operations of a US force in Iraq that used them, along with tanks, in what was called an insurgency.

Australia got away with being ashamed or embarrassed about combat capability from a previous era where there was little threat and no real regional enemies. Now, in the most strategically uncertain period for 75 years, when not only may we have to support alliance forces by deploying small combat forces to distant parts of the world as we have been doing for decades, but must also now have a military that is ready to fight a peer or near-peer competitor, such as China.

We need a robust working attack helicopter and we need it now. Let’s start realistically calling these machines what they are, otherwise we might start to believe our own fears, and think that they can only be used for armed reconnaissance.

Change the name to make it honest and we take one very small step towards shaping an attitude to combat and winning that Australia desperately needs.

Second, we seem to have decided to buy 29 aircraft. That might have been the right number for the strategic environment we faced for the last 75 years, but in the last few years, our strategic environment has significantly changed.

Twenty-nine helos enable us to send niche forces with maybe eight Apaches overseas at a time, supported by the US, but they do not enable us to defend this country in the war that is growing in likelihood.

The ADF is the best it has been for many decades in terms of combat capability and much credit for that goes to the Coalition government since 2013, but for future regional wars between our ally the US and China, or in a fight for national survival, the ADF lacks lethality, mass and survivability. We are not strong enough, we are not big enough and we cannot fight for long enough.

Even the $270 billion that has been allocated to the ADF over the next 10 years may enable the ADF, in 10 years’ time, to perhaps win a battle or two, but not win a campaign or win a war.

I supported the PM’s brilliant speech on 1 July last year when allocating the $270 billion over 10 years to the ADF, but the sentiments in the speech and what we as a government are doing or not doing now, do not align. We should all be thinking of the implications of what the PM said in that speech, and ask ourselves: Are we achieving what he spoke of?

Third, this purchase of a US aircraft shows that those who still go on about Australia having to choose between our main trading partner and our main security partner are not paying attention. We have chosen. In fact, we chose more than 75 years ago.

Fourth, the fact that we are buying the Apaches through foreign military sales (FMS), rather than trying to half make the aircraft in Australia, just as the RAAF buys almost all its aircraft on FMS or at least the ones that work, means that when the Apaches arrive, they will work, they will be upgraded with US forces, and we will have access to spare parts for as long as we can keep our air and sea routes open (which may not be very long so let’s hope we have stocks in this country).

Fifth, the government is to be commended for making a hard and expensive decision, but this purchase again proves that there is no national security strategy at work anywhere behind the scenes. If there was, we would at least have recognised that the ADF has perhaps three future tasks:

  • to prepare to send forces capable of serious fighting overseas with our allies to deter or defeat a peer regional potential military such as China;
  • to be prepared to defend this nation from collateral attacks on Australia from within a war between the US and China; and
  • to be able to expand to a sizable modern military to defend this nation from direct attack if we and our allies are not successful in deterring or defeating regional military aggression.

The purchase of such a small number of aircraft in our strategic environment, without reference to how they might be used and what we are buying them for, proves that we lack even the basis of a national security strategy. It indicates to me that we do not know what war we are preparing for. Still it is far better than nothing.

In the PM’s 1 July speech, he made reference to the years between the wars, the 1920s and 30s. On 25 January 1942, Australia ordered full mobilisation after the Pearl Harbour attack and the predictable failure of the Singapore strategy, another period where we denied the facts of the strategic environment and had no workable national security strategy. This week then is the 79th anniversary of that event. Let’s not forget that Australia has never in its history been prepared for any war it has been involved in. That is a disgrace and must end.

The parallels between the inter-war years for Australia and the last decade are stark. Perhaps we could have gotten away with being unprepared in the past because we have been lucky to have the US as an ally. US power made us prosperous and secure. As Ronald Reagan said: “Of the four wars in my lifetime, none came about because the US was too strong.”

But US military capability is severely reduced since 1991, the end of the Cold War, and the growth of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea should deserve a little bit more constructive paranoia than is being shown by Australia at the moment. The first step can only be a National Security Strategy.

Jim Molan is a senator for NSW. He retired as a major general from the Australian Army in 2008.

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