The Coalition has announced renewed plans to deliver a new, locally-built and sustained self-propelled howitzer (SPH) artillery system, with the opposition agreeing to both the government’s plan and Army’s timely “need” for the capability.
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The project will also provide valuable investment in Australia’s local defence industry, creating hundreds of jobs in Geelong, with the long-term potential to expand the industry through exports to international partners.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, "We will acquire 30 self-propelled howitzers and their supporting systems, and we will build them and maintain them in Geelong, drawing on the large manufacturing skills base in the region."
The Geelong area is currently divided into two electorates – the federal seat of Corangamite, held by Liberal Sarah Henderson, and the neighbouring seat of Corio, held by the shadow defence minister Richard Marles.
This program will significantly improve the force protection capability of Army, giving the ability to rapidly engage land targets at long ranges with a high degree of precision, to neutralise threats before they can deliver lethal effects on friendly forces.
"By reviving this project – which was cancelled under Labor – we will deliver the Army the capability it needs. By building it in Australia, we will create up to 350 jobs as part of growing our defence industry across the nation," Prime Minister Morrison added.
Minister for Defence Industry Linda Reynolds said, "We will revive the self-propelled artillery project by bringing forward the Defence acquisition project known as ‘Protected Mobile Fires’ to address the capability gap left by Labor."
Manufacturing work is expected to begin at a specialised, greenfield site by 2022-23, which the Coalition said will create 350 jobs across both electorates, raising questions about Labor's plans for the program – will the opposition follow recent precedent by committing to the local build and maintenance for the Army's new SPH and support systems?
Minister Reynolds outlined the details of the government's plan, saying, "We will utilise the outcomes of the tender process cancelled by Labor and the Coalition’s Smart Buyer framework, as the starting point of an accelerated approval process. This will ensure that an Australian prime contractor can deliver a world-class platform with work beginning in Geelong before the end of 2022-23."
This renewed program is expected to be renamed LAND 8112, with the government looking to proceed with the acquisition as a sole source program through Defence's new 'Smart Buyer' initiative. Significantly, the government announcement also specified the requirement for an Australian prime, a precondition that naturally leads to the conclusion that Raytheon Australia will be asked to start where they left off in 2012 when the LAND 17 program was cancelled.
The Opposition responds
Marles and shadow assistant minister for defence industry and support Dr Mike Kelly responded to the Coalition's announcement, highlighting the opposition's commitment to work with Army to "acquire 30 self propelling howitzers to make sure it gets the capability it needs, when it needs it".
This statement reveals the opposition's commitment to a similar acquisition program and timeline to that announced by the Coalition – the 'Smart Buyer' initiative – which will see the government proceed with the acquisition as a role source program.
Labor took the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to keeping defence expenditure at the bipartisan agreed 2 per cent of GDP, while also spruiking its Defence Regional Procurement Policy and plan to back Australia's defence industry primes.
Both Marles and Dr Kelly stated that a Labor government would "seek Army’s advice on this decision to make sure it meets its needs, not a desperate government’s political need".
Industry welcomes opportunity
The now defunct LAND 17 Phase 1C program saw tenders from Raytheon Australia as prime contractor with its then subcontractor Samsung Techwin (now Hanwha) providing its K-9 platform. The Australianised version of the platform, the AS-9, was down-selected by Defence and incorporated a range of enhancements as well as a significant Australian industry involvement plan.
A Raytheon Australia spokesperson told Defence Connect, "When the acquisition process for self-propelled artillery was cancelled in 2012, Raytheon Australia had successfully led a team offering an Australianised version of the Korean K-9 self-propelled howitzer, which became known as the AS-9 'Aussie Thunder'.
"Following the cancellation announcement, Raytheon Australia formally advised the Commonwealth that, although the company was disappointed with the decision, we would resume the acquisition process should the Commonwealth decide to reconsider acquiring self-propelled artillery. This advice was provided to rapidly deliver a world-class capability for the Australian Army. That offer remains on the table."
"Raytheon Australia will respond to the requirement that this work be undertaken in Geelong by working with its partners to establish a new assembly and integration facility that has the potential to create hundreds on local jobs in the region. Raytheon Australia looks forward to participating in a genuinely national project that is based upon world-class technology, manufacture in Australia, an Australian supply chain and the creation of high-tech Australian jobs," the Raytheon Australia spokesperson added.