In late April, the US State Department approved the sale to Australia of 160 M1A1 tank hulls from stock.
Those frames will be used to produce the ADF's next tank fleet: around 75 M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams main battle tanks, plus 29 M1150 Assault Breacher Vehicles, 18 Joint Assault Bridges, six M88A2 Hercules Combat Recovery Vehicles, and 122 AGT1500 gas turbine engines.
Whilst the exact balance of vehicle types will be approved by the National Security Council (NSC) at Gate 2 approval, this represents a major upgrade to Australia's heavy armour capability. It is being managed under Land 907 Phase 2 (the tank upgrade) and Land 8160 Phase 1 (the combat engineering vehicles).
"Land 8160 is re-introducing a range of capabilities that originally existed under the Leopard fleet but wasn't followed on when we introduced Abrams," Colonel Paul Graham, Director Land Combat Vehicle Program at Army HQ, said to ADM. "The combat engineering vehicles are all based on the M1 chassis. The programs were originally run separately but the decision was made to bring them together given that commonality."
After Army's combat engineering vehicle capability was removed following the retirement of the Leopard fleet, soldiers risk-managed those tasks in a coalition setting; but according to Brigadier Jeremy King, Director General Platforms at Army HQ, the operational justification for re-introducing the capability was clear.
"It's been a relatively easy argument for the combat engineering vehicles," BRIG King said. "People have in their mind a concerning image of a soldier prodding for IEDs. We've learnt the lesson that a mature armoured capability can do that more effectively without putting soldiers at risk."
The vehicles will be 'Australianised' with C4I equipment and will not use depleted uranium (DU) armour for security and environmental reasons, but will otherwise be 'closely aligned' to the US standard to capitalise on scales of economy for spare parts. DU armour offers immense density (uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element on Earth), but Army says it has found an 'alternative solution' with the US that 'still provides the most protected tank in the region.'
"We will do what we can to avoid varying from the baseline and becoming an orphan fleet," COL Graham said.
"Of course configurations currently in use by the US Army will be available quicker and Australianisation may need time to complete any engineering work involved," Ian Cook, managing director of Abrams platform support prime contractor General Dynamic Land Systems Australia (GDLS-A) confirmed to ADM.
How will Army's recent decision to scrap the Elbit battle management system impact the acquisition timeline?
"The Chief of Army made the decision recently and we will work through, project by project and platform by platform, what that means and we're in the process of doing that," BRIG King said.
AIC in FMS case
Whilst the FMS largely precludes local involvement in the acquisition half of the programs, Army is hoping to involve Australian industry in sustaining the new fleet and undertook industry engagement activities to scope out local capabilities in late 2020.
"We already have a reliance on local industry, in particular TAE in Brisbane, who do a large amount of maintenance on the turbine engine for the current fleet," COL Graham said. "We expect that will increase with the introduction of the new capability and we expect to see other local firms of similar sophistication get involved, particularly on the vehicles under 8160."
"There'll be opportunities for support in operator-level maintenance, but we're also looking for that in-country deeper level component maintenance," BRIG King said.
Cook confirmed this with ADM: "Australian suppliers can offer a range of sustainment support including professional services and system and sub-system maintenance and overhaul capabilities."
For industry, the key date to keep in mind is Gate 2 approval in October this year.
"We're planning for an August presentation at the investment committee and an October presentation at NSC," COL Graham said.
"Once we've gone through that October date, we'll have some clarity and can start engaging with industry," BRIG King said. "As we rollout that project for acquisition we'll engage with industry on what we flagged in those engagement sessions in 2020, in terms of what we'd like to pursue and to give industry an opportunity to refine their proposals."
GDLS-A is also planning to re-engage with industry post-Gate 2.
"Following Second Pass approval where the sustainment strategy will be endorsed, GDLS-A will conduct more specific Industry Engagement over a longer period," Cook said. "It is expected that by this time, specific work packages will be offered for interested suppliers to tender against allowing value for money assessments to be made."