In 2018, Australian academic Ben Coleman published Project LAND 400: Defining the Army, which grappled with some of the key issues involved in the Australian Army’s LAND 400 Project to replace its existing fleet of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) at a projected cost of $14-20 billion.
In his report, Coleman recognises that LAND 400 is not just about replacing the Army’s ageing Australian light armoured vehicles (ASLAVs) and M113 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), with AFVs more suitable for current and projected threat environments but will in fact define how the Australian Army is structured and will fight over the next three decades. Beyond the staggering financial costs involved in selecting, manufacturing and sustaining a projected force of up to 700 AFVs, it is critical for the Australian Army to reconsider how effectively the proposed LAND 400 buy fits with the original flexible intent of Plan Beersheba.
Plan Beersheba was launched in 2011 with the objective of reorganising the Australian Army’s three dissimilar brigades (mechanised, motorised and light infantry) into three similar combined-arms multi-role combat brigades (MCBs) compromised of two standard infantry battalions (SIBs), an armoured cavalry regiment (ACR) with organic armoured, cavalry and mounted combat lift capabilities, along with the usual supporting elements of artillery, signals, combat engineers and combat service support units.
This reorganisation was based on both an analysis of combined arms warfare throughout the 20th century and the Australian Army’s experience of practising combined arms warfare in both low and high-intensity combat operations. This allows for a 36-month ready-readying-reset cycle in which one brigade in constantly ready for operations, another readying to replace it, and the third in reset after its ready cycle.
Cognisant of recent experience in low-intensity combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has been widely recognised that even in lower-threat environments, insurgent and terrorist actors have available to them weaponry that poses a serious threat to forces that lack protected mobility.
The bottom line, Australian forces deployed with armour protected vehicles stand a better chance of minimising casualties across all conflict scenarios, whilst better-armed and protected AFVs and tanks operating in concert will increase the protection, firepower and mobility of MCBs engaged in offensive operations. LAND 400 was initiated in order to provide this capability, with four phases covering: 1) project definition, 2) acquisition of combat reconnaissance vehicles (CRV), 3) acquisition of infantry fighting vehicles (IFV), and 4) support and training.
However, as Coleman points out, the Australian Army is more likely to be called upon for lower-intensity regional scenarios such as peacekeeping or stabilisation operations requiring a higher degree of strategic deployability and flexibility rather than high-intensity coalition warfare scenarios. This is where the 2017 changes to Plan Beersheba present significant challenges to developing a force structure that will be flexible, deployable and effective for the majority of likely deployment scenarios, whilst still maintaining a credible Army capability to engage in high-intensity warfare if called upon to do so.
These changes saw the original Plan Beersheba force structure of two standard infantry battalions, supported by an APC squadron in the ACR and a protected mobility vehicle platoon in the combat service support battalion restructured into two dissimilar infantry battalions, one mechanised and one motorised, with the ACR restructured with one armoured and two reconnaissance squadrons.
Although this restructure would lessen training demands and streamline command and control of mechanised and motorised battlegroups, this presents problems for the strategic and operational flexibility of the MCBs standing ready battle group (RBG) formed around one of its infantry battalions, if it is called upon to conduct either low or high-intensity combat operations.
If the RBG was the brigade’s mechanised battalion and is called upon to for low-intensity scenarios, its strategic and operational deployability may constrain its ability to do so, due to the heavy weight of projected LAND 400 AFVs, both for their strategic deployment and tactical mobility in areas lacking the transport infrastructure to support their weight. Conversely, if the RBG was the brigade’s motorised battalion, and deployment into a major combat operation was required, its capacity to execute such operations would be limited by their reduced conventional warfighting capability.
This could also impact upon attempts to develop a standardised concept of operations (CONOPS) for the ground combat element (GCE) of the ADF’s amphibious ready group (ARG), which would notionally be the RBG. This reorganisation also fails to clarify how these two dissimilar and specialised infantry battalions will be used in conjunction with the Army’s aviation assets for airmobile and air assault operations.
The flexibility originally aspired to under Plan Beersheba is therefore compromised by this restructure, yet it is not too late to consider an alternative force structure. One that would provide the MRBs with greater strategic and operational flexibility for low-intensity scenarios whilst still maintaining a higher-end mechanised capability for decisive shock action in major combat operations.
This would also be more consistent with the first iteration of Plan Bersheeba. This is still possible as the RFT to acquire up to 450 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) under LAND 400 Phase 3 has only recently seen four bids from European, American and South Korean contenders confirmed, meaning Army still has time to consider an alternative force structure that provides significant combat weight whilst increasing its strategic and operational flexibility.
This restructure would be made possible by standardising both MCB infantry battalions, each equipped with a complement of PMVs crewed by the Royal Australian Corps of Transport (RACT) and by raising organic mechanised infantry elements within the ACR. This would provide the infantry battalions with organic protected mobility, enabling flexibility to be deployed as motorised and/or airmobile infantry as well as allowing for greater strategic and operational deployability. This would be complemented by a restructure of the brigade ACRs along the lines of the Norwegian Army’s Telemark Battalion. This battalion is structured around one armoured squadron, one cavalry squadron, two mechanised infantry companies and a staff and support squadron.
As Australian ACR structured along these lines would employ the Boxer CRVs acquired under LAND 400 Phase 2 in a reinforced reconnaissance squadron, whilst requiring a significantly lower number of IFVs spread across two mechanised squadrons than the 450 IFVs currently envisioned under Phase 3. As a mechanised infantry unit with significant organic firepower courtesy of its IFVs, the manoeuvre support teams (MST) found in regular infantry platoons wouldn’t be required, which would serve to offset somewhat the increased number of infantry required across the MCBs under this restructure. Fourteen IFVs should be sufficient per mechanised squadron, with 28 per ACR and 84 across the three MCBs.
Taking into account the additional number of IFVs required for training, attrition and maintenance cycles, alongside potential mortar, logistics and amphibious variants, around 200 IFVs could provide this capability under the proposed restructure. This is less than half the number envisioned under Phase 3, projected to cost $10-15 billion.
Defence and Army would be wise to consider the opportunity costs that would be afforded by the smaller Phase 3 acquisition proposed under this restructure. One which provides Army with a much greater level of strategic and operational flexibility, whilst still retaining a credible capability for decisive shock action in high-intensity combat operations.
Jeremy Carpenter is a freelance journalist who holds a master’s degree in international security from the University of Sydney and has worked on security sector reform in Timor-Leste, focused on community policing, defence policy, transnational crime and youth violence prevention.