During the 2019 federal election campaign, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that, should it be re-elected, the Coalition would acquire 30 self-propelled howitzers (SPH) for Army.
Fast forward two years and the re-elected Morrison government is currently evaluating a proposal from Hanwha Defense Australia, under a sole-source tender mechanism, for a locally-built variant of its successful 155mm, 52 calibre K9 Thunder SPH, to enter service in the mid-2020s.
To be known locally as the AS9 Huntsman, after the common Australian spider, the capability is actually a weapons system, comprising the AS9 SPH and AS10 armoured ammunition resupply vehicle (AARV). The Commonwealth is seeking to acquire 30 AS9s and 15 AS10s under the Land 8116 Phase 1 (Protected Mobile Fires) program and in July 2020 it announced further plans to acquire additional units later in the decade, sufficient to ultimately equip two regiments.
Whether the original announcement, which came as a surprise to many observers, was made on political grounds – Morrison also pledged to build them in Geelong, parts of which were then in a marginally-held Coalition seat – remains to be seen, but a Protected Mobile Fires capability represented by the SPH has long been sought by Army and will fill a missing piece in its ‘Army in Motion’ and ‘Accelerated Warfare’ principles.
Once the contract is finalised Hanwha intends to develop a facility in the Geelong area to produce the Huntsman and also, if successful, the AS21 Redback infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), which is a competitor for Army’s Land 400 Phase 3 program. While the two programs are independent of one another, there are obvious synergies in terms of Australian Industry Content (AIC) and Hanwha has already engaged with more than 600 local companies, across both programs, as it seeks to build a supply chain that will be centred upon the Greater Geelong area.
Why does Army need a Protected Mobile Fires capability?
Although Army has sought to acquire a self-propelled howitzer in the past and actively pursued a program to do so a decade ago, the 2016 Defence White Paper or associated Integrated Investment Program (IIP) made no mention of a requirement for such a capability. Indeed, artillery was discussed only in general terms in the documents, and then in terms of a future rocket artillery program. Hence the announcement by the Prime Minister in May 2019, coming as it did in the dying days of an election campaign which many expected the Coalition to lose, took some analysts by surprise.
Therefore, any study of the Land 8116 program must logically begin with a question; Why does Army need a Protected Mobile Fires capability in the shape of a self-propelled howitzer?
The answer is at least partially provided within the 2020 Defence Strategic Review and associated Force Structure Plan, which note both the increasing shift in the balance of military power in the Indo-Pacific region, with more nations acquiring modern, lethal weapons systems, and the realisation that Australia may no longer be able to choose how, where or when it fights the next war.
In the second edition of Army’s ‘Contribution to Defence Strategy’, published in October 2020, Chief of Army Lieutenant General Rick Burr notes Australia’s changing strategic circumstances and points out that Defence strategy will continue to change in years to come. LTGEN Burr also makes the point that the ‘Army in Motion’ strategy is intended to prepare land power in response to these changes and assure the Joint Force’s ability to control land, which he describes, “a fundamental of sovereignty and human security.”
More specifically, a Defence spokesperson told ADM that a tracked mobility, protection and firepower capability, as delivered by Protected Mobile Fires, will allow a Joint Force to operate in medium to high intensity warfare in support of “highly manoeuvrable” armoured vehicles, such as Army’s Abrams M1A1 Main Battle Tanks, Boxer Combat Reconnaissance Vehicles and Combat Engineering Vehicles, and the Infantry Fighting Vehicles to be delivered under Land 400/3.
“They further provide a potent counter-battery fire capability, supressing and destroying enemy artillery before it can be used effectively against friendly troops,” the spokesperson explained to ADM.
Protected Mobile Fires will become Army’s predominant 155mm artillery system in the future and will be supported by existing towed BAE Systems M777A2 howitzers when light and air-mobile forces are required. However, the spokesperson acknowledged that the latter weapon lacks the protection, mobility and range required to integrate with current and emerging armoured combat vehicles.
“Protected Mobile Fires is a key capability in the ADF’s Protected Manoeuvre System, which is characterised by highly lethal, tactically manoeuvrable, and heavily armoured and protected land systems,” the spokesperson added. “The Protected Manoeuvre System has the firepower, protection and mobility necessary to fight and win in mid to high-intensity warfare.”
Defence says the 155mm, 39 calibre M777A2 will remain “an important capability” for the ADF in support of light and air-mobile forces (the 155mm gun can be airlifted aboard RAAF C-130J-30 Hercules transports and as an underslung load by Army’s CH-47F Chinook helicopters), while the Protected Mobile Fires capability will support Army’s armoured vehicles. Army is also currently considering its future organisational structures and location options to accommodate the Protected Mobile Fires capability and has made no decisions at this point in time.
“Protected Mobile Fires will be the ADF’s primary 155mm artillery system, complemented by the current M777A2 Lightweight Towed Howitzer, significantly enhancing the ADF’s indirect fires capability,” the spokesperson summed up. “The system seeks to address a known capability gap that has existed since the cancellation of the Self-Propelled Howitzer Land 17 Phase 1C project in 2012.”
Land 8116 gestation
Land 17 Phase 1C was Army’s previous attempt to acquire a self-propelled howitzer capability that we mentioned earlier, but this program was ultimately killed off in May 2012 by the Gillard Labor Government, as a part of a cost-cutting exercise. Instead, Defence purchased 19 additional M777A2s and they subsequently joined 35 earlier examples, the first of which entered service in Australia in 2010.
Under the original program, Defence was considering two contenders: the PzH (Panzerhaubitze) 2000 system, developed by KMW and Rheinmetall; and an earlier iteration of the AS9 which was then marketed as the ‘Aussie Thunder’ by a partnership comprising South Korea’s Samsung Defense (today Hanwha Defense) and Raytheon Australia.
In the years since 2012 the strategic climate in which Australia finds itself has changed significantly and continues to rapidly do so today. The 2020 Defence Strategic Review notes that the 2016 White Paper had assumed a 10-year strategic warning of any large-scale conventional attack, but that it is no longer an appropriate basis for ensuring security, stating a high-intensity conflict in the region is more likely than it was even five years ago.
To address the aforementioned artillery capability gap since the cancellation of Land 17/1C, the Defence spokesperson said that opportunities for approval of a Protected Mobile Fires Capability were investigated through the Force Structure Plan process.
“On May 14, 2019, the Government announced that Defence will acquire a new self-propelled artillery system to be built and maintained in Geelong and acquired under an accelerated approval process, with work to be commence in Geelong in 2022-2023,” the spokesperson explained.
The announcement the spokesperson refers to is the one made by the Prime Minister during the federal election campaign, which emphasised the government’s ‘Jobs and Growth’ mantra and specifically targeted at the Geelong region, which had been hit hard by the recent loss of the car industry.
“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,” PM Morrison said at the time. “By reviving this project, 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.”
At the same time, then Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said Government would bring forward the Protected Mobile Fires acquisition program, identified as Land 8116 Phase 1, with the first work to begin in Geelong at the end of the 2022-23 financial year.
Speaking at the launch of its industry team for its Land 400/3 bid in Melbourne in May 2020, Hanwha Defense Australia managing director Richard Cho revealed his company had then recently made an unsolicited offer to government to build 30 AS9 SPHs and 15 AS10 AARVs in Geelong.
“I think the notion of our unsolicited proposal stated the process, (but) ultimately I think there has been a need within the Australian Department of Defence for a self-propelled gun,” Cho said. “So, I guess it wasn’t just our offer, but the need.”
The Commonwealth subsequently released a sole-source Request for Tender (RFT) to Hanwha Defense Australia, as the preferred supplier, on September 3, 2020, to progress the first phase of the Protected Mobile Fires capability, comprising 30 AS9s and 15 AS10s.
“The acquisition of this capability will provide the ADF with the mobility, lethality and protection required to support Joint Force operations in the land domain,” then Defence Minister Reynolds said. “The self-propelled howitzers will be built in the Geelong region, with ongoing deep maintenance conducted in the same Australian facility to support the systems throughout their service life.”
Defence said it completed four key activities in support of the sole-source tender, including SmartBuyer workshops to identify risks and opportunities; a Request for Information (RFI) to identify and understand potential suppliers; an independent market analysis to provide a second assessment of the suppliers who responded to the RFI; and the solicitation of independent legal advice to ensure Commonwealth rules had been adhered to and probity maintained.
“This process gave the government confidence that Hanwha Defense Australia was the only vendor capable of meeting Defence’s specific requirements within the parameters directed by Government,” a Defence spokesperson explained.
Hanwha’s tender response was received by the Commonwealth on February 1, 2021 and is now under evaluation.
“Defence will then consider the need for an Offer Definition Improvement Activity before proceeding into contract negotiations. This will allow Government to formally consider selection of the Huntsman family of vehicles and their supporting systems at Second Pass.”
Second Pass approval is anticipated in the first quarter of 2022, with the acquisition programmed into the 2020 Force Structure Plan between $0.9 and $1.3 billion up to 2030. Initial Operational Capability (IOC) is expected to be achieved in FY 25/26, with Final Operational Capability planned to follow in FY 27/28.
In July 2020 the government announced a commitment to an additional regiment of self-propelled howitzers and supporting vehicles as a further initiative of FSP 2020, completing Army’s plans to field two regiments of Protected Mobile Fires capability. The new vehicles will be acquired under a second phase of Land 8116 later in the decade and will also be built in Geelong.
“This acquisition will double the number of operational platforms being delivered under Land 8116, providing the ADF with a critical artillery capability,” then Defence Minister Reynolds said in a statement at the time of the announcement. “Both phases of Land 8116 will include supporting Armoured Ammunition Resupply Vehicles, which will also be built in Geelong.”
Although a firm decision is some years hence it would be hard to imagine Defence buying a different Protected Mobile Fires capability, assuming the successful introduction of Huntsman of course, and it would seem that Hanwha’s facility in Geelong will ultimately build and support 90 vehicles (60 AS9s and 30 AS10s).
Hanwha Defense is the Republic of Korea’s largest defence supplier and has produced more than 7,000 armoured vehicles to date, including IFVs, SPH systems, combat engineering vehicles and mobile armoured air defence systems.
Speaking at ADM’s Congress in Canberra on February 4, Hanwha Defense Australia managing director Richard Cho said the Hanwha’s Group’s overall sales revenue for last year was $70 billion Australian dollars.
“When it comes to defence, our focus is 100 percent on the delivery of pragmatic, reliable and effective capability solutions to our customer. In Korea our military has been on a 24/7 war footing since 1953, with Hanwha dedicated to supporting the operations of the RoK Army. In that environment, Hanwha has learned to deal with readiness and ensure that military equipment is actually available and ready for immediate use,” Cho said.
Over 2,400 K9 systems have been sold globally and publicly available sources suggest variants have been selected by, or are service with, the RoK, Australia, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, India, Norway, Poland and Turkey.
The baseline K9 design has a crew of four or five and an internal ammunition capacity of up to 48 rounds, with associated modular charge systems
The K10 AARV uses the same chassis as the SPH and is capable of carrying 104 rounds and resupplying the K9 on the battlefield under armour, using an automated bridge to connect the two vehicles. Public sources suggest a resupply rate of 12 rounds per minute, whilst both crews remain under armour.
Australia’s Huntsman system will be based on the latest K9 variant, in the form of Norway’s VIDAR (Versatile InDirect ARtillery) system, but further developed to meet Army’s requirements. These enhancements are understood to include an armour upgrade to the latest protection standards, a beefed-up suspension to cope with the increased weight of the vehicle, and integration with the ADF’s C4 force structure, including Army’s Battlefield Management System (BMS). Combat weight of the AS9 is understood to be in the region of 50 tonnes and, as such it thought to capable of being transported aboard Navy’s LCM-1E landing craft during amphibious operations.
According to Defence, the Huntsman will utilise in-service 155mm ammunition acquired through existing sustainment contracts.
“This includes the M-series of 155mm ammunition and the new Assegai 155mm ammunition fleet, which is due to complete full technical certification in mid-2021,” a spokesperson said.
Building the Huntsman in Geelong
Speaking at the launch of Hanwha’s industry team for its Land 400/3 bid in Melbourne two years ago, Hanwha Defense CEO Sunsoong Lee told ADM that he was “very much committed” to establishing a true self-reliance capability within Australia, working closely with local industry base in Victoria and the Greater Geelong area. Lee also stressed that Hanwha’s plans to build the Huntsman system in Geelong was independent of the Land 400/3 outcome.
“The recent announcement of the government to revisit SPH capability also provides additional opportunity for Hanwha to work closely with the industry base in Geelong to deliver capabilities for the ADF,” Lee said.
On January 12 this year, the Victorian Government subsequently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Hanwha Defense Australia to formalise a long-term partnership in support of the company’s defence manufacturing operations in the state. Under the terms of the agreement, both parties will also explore investment opportunities in both the defence and non-defence sectors.
“Victoria is the home of Australian manufacturing and we are pleased to be working with Hanwha to maximise opportunities for more high-value jobs to be created in Geelong,” Victoria’s Minister for Industry Support and Recovery Martin Pakula said in a statement marking the signing. “The range of companies working in defence industries is staggering, and we’re backing them to grow further.”
While there is yet to be a public announcement regarding the precise location of Hanwha’s proposed facility, ADM understands several locations within the Greater Geelong Area are under consideration and the site is expected to include an assembly line, an R&D facility and perhaps an electromagnetic interference/compatibility (EMI/EMC) chamber.Australian Industry Capability
Hanwha Defense Australia managing director Richard Cho told delegates at ADM’s Congress in Canberra in February that the company understands the importance of self-reliance for each country it supports and he pointed to Norway’s VIDAR project as an example.
“Under the VIDAR K9 program we went head-to-head with four major suppliers, some of which were major European companies. In other words, we competed with them in their own backyard and won. But the program demands, in terms of self-reliance, were onerous,” he said. “All levels of support had to be in-country; Norwegian industry had to be central to the solution and the capability had to be fully networked. Not just with the Joint Fires systems, but also other enablers such as the joint logistics systems and direct fire systems such as their Remote Weapons Stations (RWS) fleet and manoeuvre C2 Systems. All this was achieved on-budget and on time.”
Cho also said that Hanwha had worked with its NATO customers to create a European sustainment hub, which included technology transfer to Poland and maintenance and repair capabilities in Estonia, Finland and Norway.
“Ongoing operational capability relies heavily on effective support capability. But this in and of itself is not enough: the demand and economic activity must be there to create the skills, jobs and – to state it bluntly – the cash flow to keep the support system working,” he told the audience.
“Big one-off export orders do not achieve this, and it is getting harder to do as nations now demand their own versions of self-reliance and the use of their defence budgets to generate jobs and economic benefit.”
Cho highlighted the expertise Australian industry holds with regard to low volume and cost-efficient manufacture of highly specialised systems and components, saying the capability was hard to replicate elsewhere.
“Hanwha will contribute to growing the Australian industrial base by leveraging international demand on our company as an opportunity for Australian industry,” he added. “We will achieve this by being inclusive in our solutions and creating opportunities for our Australian partners to present their skillsets, solutions and services that may benefit our clients around the world.”
In March last year Hanwha and Australian veteran-owned BenchOn announced a partnership to create a Hanwha Australian Industry Portal (AIP) to engage with local businesses to access their capabilities and services. In a statement to mark the occasion, BenchOn CEO Tim Walmsley described the Hanwha AIP as the first of its kind in the world.
“It will not only link Hanwha to the best Australian companies to find the high-quality specialists they need to support their programs, but also allows them to manage their Australian and Global Supply Chain from the same dashboard,” Walmsley said. “Unlike other supply chain management, the Hanwha AIP is a private system that protects companies’ proprietary information, automatically manages potential conflicts of interest and controls the flow of sensitive information to ensure that it is only received by the appropriate companies.”
One recent example of Australian industry expertise identified by Hanwha Defense Australia is an MoU signed in March with Adelaide-based welding company K-TIG, which will develop advanced keyhole welding procedures for the manufacture of components on Land 8116 and in the future, should Hanwha be successful, Land 400/3.
“Partnering with Hanwha to create crucial equipment for Australia’s defence is a significant opportunity for K-TIG to deploy the speed, efficiency and effectiveness of our advanced keyhole welding technology, all while helping to create local jobs, develop strategically vital manufacturing skills for the nation, and provide the Australian Army with the self-propelled artillery capability it’s desired for many years,” K-TIG managing director Adrian Smith said in a notice to the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) on March 23.
With regard to Land 8116 specifically, Hanwha announced back in November 2020 that it has selected Kongsberg Defence Australia to be its C4I partner on the program. Kongsberg already provides the digital architecture systems for Hanwha’s K9 and K10 and Richard Cho said it was a “natural fit” for the Huntsman program also. Kongsberg will be responsible for integrating the protected Mobile Fires capability into the ADF’s C4I structure, including the integration of tactical communications systems and Army’s BMS, and deliver enhanced operability with coalition partners through its Odin Fire Support System (FSS).
“Together with Hanwha Defense Australia, Kongsberg is committed to the establishment of a sovereign industrial capability to support the Australian Protected Mobile Fires capability throughout its service life,” commented Kongsberg Defence Australia general manager John Fry. “We’ll continue to source as much C4 hardware as possible through Australian and NZ-based suppliers.”
Although Hanwha Defense Australia is yet to announce its selection of a site in Geelong, it may be reasonable to assume such an announcement is not far away – especially if the former Defence Minister’s promise to have the first Huntsman roll-off the production line by the end of FY 22/23 is to be kept.
“Hanwha will contribute to growing the Australian industrial base by leveraging international demand on our company as an opportunity for Australian industry,” Richard Cho promised at the recent ADM Congress. “We want to use Australian industry’s know-how and take it to the world. We are already working with a select group of local companies, trialling their technology for possible application into our production methods, both here and in Korea.”