One of the surprises of the recent federal election campaign was Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s promise to acquire 30 Self-Propelled Howitzers (SPH), and to build them in Geelong, should a coalition government be re-elected.
This announcement took many by surprise, as the 2016 Defence White Paper and associated Integrated Investment Program makes no mention of any requirement for an SPH capability and, indeed, apart from a future rocket artillery project, only discusses artillery in general terms.
Whether the Prime Minister’s election promise was a brain explosion, in a similar vein to Kevin Rudd’s decision during the 2013 federal election campaign to move the Navy to Brisbane, or not, remains to be seen (see News for more on this).
The Victorian seat of Corangamite, held by the Liberal Party’s Sarah Henderson by a slim margin before the election, covers a large part of the Geelong region, and political analysts suggested at the time that the SPH announcement was a desperate attempt to sway voters.
If so, it was to no avail, as the Coalition lost Corangamite to Labor in a tight contest.
So, what now? The Coalition won an election it did not expect to win, so will Army get its long-coveted SPH capability?
A little history
Army had hoped to acquire an SPH capability some years ago, under Project Land 17 Phase 2, but the program was eventually cancelled by the Labor Government in May 2012, as a cost-cutting exercise and an additional number of BAE Systems’ M-777 Towed Howitzers were acquired in lieu.
At the time, the two contenders were the Panzerhaubitze (PzH) 2000 155mm self-propelled gun developed by Germany’s KMW and Rheinmetall, and an Australian version of the Samsung Techwin K-9 Thunder SPH, to be known as the AS-9 ‘Aussie Thunder’. To offer the AS-9 to Army, Samsung partnered with Raytheon Australia at the time.
Fast-forward to 2019 and the same two vehicles are considered the front-runners in a new competition (if there is to be a competition), but this time the AS-9 is being offered by Hanwha Defence Australia, which is now the OEM.
The Coalition’s promise
The SPH promise was made by Morrison on May 14, during the closing days of the election campaign and specifically targeting the Greater Geelong Area, claiming the deal would add 350 jobs to a region, which has recently been devastated by the loss of the Australian motor vehicle 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,” Morrison said.
“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.”
Then-Minister for Defence Industry Linda Reynolds added that the howitzers will be acquired by bringing forward a Defence acquisition program, known as Protected Mobile Fires, to begin working in Geelong by the end of the 2022-2023 financial year.
The 30 vehicles will be acquired under Defence’s ‘Smart Buyer’ framework.
Hanwha Defence Australia
Hanwha Defence Australia is one of the current bidders for Army’s $15 billion Land 400 Phase 3 (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) project and is bidding its AS21 Redback vehicle, which it will build in Geelong if successful.
Speaking at the launch of its industry team for Land 400 Phase 3 in Melbourne in late May, Hanwha Defence Australia’s managing
director Richard Cho revealed his company had made an unsolicited offer to Defence for production of 30 AS-9 self-propelled howitzers and 15 K-10 ammunition resupply vehicles at the end of 2018, which it also proposed to assemble in Geelong.
“I think the notion of our unsolicited proposal started the process. Ultimately, I think there has been a need within the Australian Defence Department for a self-propelled gun capability. So, I guess it wasn’t just our offer, but the need,” he said.
Cho said the Hanwha proposal is independent of whether it is successful for Land 400 Phase 3, but this time it intends to be the prime contractor for the AS-9 offer.
“If there is an opportunity, we would not shy away from working with Raytheon. However, our ability to deliver self-reliance to Australia is of paramount importance to us. To do that, it would be difficult for us to have a third-party nation to be a prime,” he added.
At the recent teaming event, Hanwha Defence CEO Sunsoong Lee told ADM that the company was “very much committed” to establishing a true self-reliance capability within Australia, working closely with the industrial base in Victoria and the Greater Geelong area, for Land 400.
“The recent announcement by 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 added.
A spokesperson for Rheinmetall Defence said that the company did not have a comment on the SPH project at this time.
Did the SPH promise have its origins in a re-emerging Army requirement, an industry offer, or was it a last ditch attempt by the coalition government to cling to power? The answer to that is unfortunately not yet clear.
ADM’s detailed questions to Defence for clarification and further detail, including detail as innocuous as the project number, elicited the following response from a nameless and faceless ‘Defence Spokesperson’, and is reported here in full:
“The Government is committed to a program to acquire self-propelled artillery,” the spokesperson said. “As the Minister for Defence has outlined, this program will significantly improve the force protection capability of the 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.
“Defence is working on options to implement this commitment and will provide advice to the Government for consideration.”
Even at the Land Environment Working Group (LEWG) meeting last month, Head of Land Capability Major General Kathryn Toohey was quick to point out, as she opened the proceedings, that neither she or her division would be answering questions on the topic until they had received further guidance from government.
As the saying goes, “time will tell”, but it would appear Army is indeed a big winner from the recent election campaign.
This article first appeared in the July 2019 edition of ADM.