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Defending investment in armoured vehicle capability

Senator for NSW and retired Major General Jim Molan responds to criticism of the Commonwealth government’s multibillion-dollar acquisition of armoured vehicles.

Senator for NSW and retired Major General Jim Molan responds to criticism of the Commonwealth government’s multibillion-dollar acquisition of armoured vehicles.

Let me write about one criticism of the tank purchase decision. As some readers may know, I have publicly defended tanks in our army for years, often against well-meaning but narrow minded and ignorant uniformed critics of all services, as well as civilians, and I am roundly criticised for doing so normally by those with little or no land combat experience.

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As I have learned in politics, advocating a point of view until you are sick to death of it normally corresponds with your audience just starting to listen. Well, it is great that the Australian government has listened.

ANU honorary professor and independent consultant on strategy, technology and policy Lesley Seebeck is just plain wrong in her very academic criticism of the government’s decision to purchase $4.8 billion worth of armoured vehicles (tanks $3.5 billion and self-propelled artillery $1.3 billion).

In fact, if you add up the cost of 30 self-propelled artillery vehicles, 15 artillery resupply vehicles, roughly 120 tanks and tank-like support vehicles, 211 reconnaissance vehicles and 450 infantry fighting vehicles, the total amount of money spent or planned to be spent on armoured vehicles is something in the order of $38 billion!

Let’s not hide it, or be ashamed of it. Let’s yell it from the roof tops.

But does honorary professor Seebeck only disapprove of tanks and artillery to the tune of about $4.8 billion? Does she approve of an army which can find the enemy and get infantry close to the fight but only against an enemy which is pretty light weight?

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Tanks enable us to actually win land battles. At the moment this is a very un-Australian concept but one which in the future might be very, very important. We don’t have the greatest record of winning over recent decades (over half a century!) but in the future, winning might be everything.

You see, what Lesley has written about here is a reflection of a view of strategy, technology and policy which is stuck severely in the last 75 years. She may not have noticed that we don’t have the next 75 years to muck around with a Gucci military designed to send small token forces to be part of a US force with the aim of showing the flag, rather than winning.  

Lesley is stuck in the mindset that has existed for far too long in Australia that if one capability is needed, another has to be given up.

To get tanks to enable the army to actually fight and win, you must give up something else. Nowadays, our military might just have to fight in order to win. Not just deploy to show the flag.

We are updating our armoured vehicle force just as the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain are doing, and of course, Russia and China. If it costs a bit of money to do so, to enable the ADF to start the process of winning, then tough. Australia must pay and this government is doing so.

Lesley is all about using any funds to invest in long-term efforts to bolster defence capability. Fantastic, as long as you don’t actually have to fight a war in the meantime. Do both – long-term research and short-term capability to actually fight the war, then set your priority.

Lesley’s views are dangerous ‘last-75-years’ thinking. That kind of thinking gave us the silliness of a “no threat for 10 years” strategic policy that built the complacency of a military (army, navy and air force) which as a result still lacks lethality (it cannot fight nasty enough), sustainability (it cannot fight for long enough) and lacks mass (it is not big enough), as well as a nation that lacks resilience and self-reliance.

If Lesley thinks that the biggest thing that is wrong with national security in this nation is the purchase of tanks, then we are all in trouble.

Lesley and I were both in Defence during the “no threat for 10 years” period. I hope she fought against that idiocy as hard as I did. During that 10-year rule period there was no consideration of how long preparation for a threat might take.

We are only just starting to get over that handicap. Strangely, we still have a 10-to-20-year submarine project, a 20-year missile project, a 10-year infrastructure project, and no project to make the ADF bigger.

But at least the Coalition government has started, and the defence minister is working his way through the legacy deficiencies that past strategy, technology and policy advice from civilian and uniformed bureaucrats created. 

Lesley acknowledges “an assertive, authoritarian China and new technologies (which) are challenging geopolitical balances, force structures and doctrine” and adds that “fast change is needed” yet apparently, she wants long-term investment. What is fast about that? That view is great if you are an academic or a cloistered strategist in Russell Offices but not much good if you face air, sea or land combat.

From very wide reading, the average prediction by world commentators who think that war is possible between the US and China is three to five years, but most acknowledge there is a chance it could be earlier. We need to be ready to fight in three to five years at the longest.

The only thing I agree with Lesley on is “the need for a coherent strategy for Australia’s new geopolitical circumstances”.

If that occurred, Lesley might see a need for both short-term combat capability and long-term investment, one without the other is useless, but my priority would be in current combat capability.

For army, this is armoured vehicles. She might also see that winning in the land, air and sea spaces (as well as space itself) is no longer an academic exercise as it has been for 75 years but goes to the very continued existence of this nation as a liberal democracy.

We cannot afford to prepare for the wrong war, a subject I will very soon publish a book on, and in which I don’t even mention tanks.

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

Defending investment in armoured vehicle capability
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