Braking issues affecting the Thales Hawkei vehicles being manufactured for Army resurfaced in the ABC last week, revealing inconsistencies in Defence public statements that suggest someone may be trying to undermine the program.
The 04 March story revisited news that Defence stopped accepting delivery of the vehicles in December 2020 - just three months after the start of full rate production - due to 'concerns about their brakes'. The Department provided the same statement to ADM on the same day the ABC story appeared.
However, in July 2021 – seven months after Defence says it stopped accepting delivery of the vehicles - Minister for Defence Peter Dutton and Minister for Defence Industry Melissa Price announced the Hawkei had resolved the braking problem and achieved Initial Operating Capability (IOC).
So why is Defence now re-raising an issue that was apparently resolved eight months ago?
Full rate production of the Hawkei began in September 2020. According to the ANAO's Major Projects Report, a Hawkei 'was involved in a safety incident involving brake functionality' on 23 November 2020. Defence temporarily suspended use of the fleet two days later, and in December 2020, began rejecting vehicle deliveries.
The ANAO report then says Thales Australia developed a software fix that was incorporated into the Hawkei's vehicle control system and administrative controls were put in place to prevent the issue from occurring until the software fix was implemented across the fleet, with a deadline of June 2022.
The report subsequently concluded that the brakes were 'no longer a major issue': "With administrative controls in place, operating restrictions have been eased, enabling Hawkei rollout and vehicle acceptance to recommence."
Initial Operating Capability was reached on 20 May 2021, and in July 2021 Minister Dutton and Minister Price announced the braking issue was resolved in a press release that is still available online at the time of writing.
"Defence and Thales Australia have resolved a braking issue identified in late 2020, with a technical solution being rolled out across the Hawkei fleet," the Ministers stated. "With appropriate controls in place, Defence has lifted the Hawkei’s operating restrictions, enabling the recommencement of full-rate production and rollout of the capability."
In 2022, delivered Hawkei vehicles appeared in promotional media released by Defence to celebrate the re-raising of the 10th Light Horse and in official social media posts from recent flood relief efforts in Queensland.
Then all of a sudden, the issue resurfaced in the ABC on 04 March, and in its statement provided to ADM on the same afternoon Defence said: "Army will not accept these vehicles into service until the vehicles are safe to operate. Defence and Thales have agreed to a brake remediation plan, and Thales are currently working to uplift the remaining vehicles to the agreed contracted standard. The vehicles remaining at the Thales facility in Bendigo will not be delivered to Army units until this work is completed."
A Thales spokesperson said: "Our focus is on getting this advanced capability into the hands of Army units as quickly as possible. Several hundred Hawkei vehicles have already been delivered to the Army, and the Hawkei is now being used safely by Army units around the country."
Thales was unable to respond to further questions due to contractual arrangements with Defence. ADM understands the company has manufactured 979 Hawkei vehicles. Defence has reportedly agreed to pay Thales for 674 vehicles and expects the vehicles to be ready for acceptance by June 2023.
Who is undermining Hawkei?
So why has the braking issue resurfaced now when it was 'resolved' in July 2021?
Even though Thales' software rollout may be on-going until June this year, according to the ANAO, the administrative controls put in place over a year ago should have put the issue to bed (as Minister Dutton and Minister Price themselves stated in July 2021).
It's worth noting that similar negative headlines have appeared about particular platforms ahead of major changes. Examples include the Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters (since replaced by Boeing Apaches); the MRH-90 Taipan helicopters (since replaced by Sikorsky Black Hawks); and most famously the Attack class submarines. More on this will be available in the upcoming May print edition of ADM.
In addition, ADM understands that Defence statements provided to the media must be cleared through the Minister for Defence's office, and that contractual requirements usually prevent companies from speaking to the media without prior Defence approval. In theory, this arrangement would make it easy for blame to fall on industry for program delays, seeing as industry cannot respond.
With that in mind, ADM sent further questions to Defence to ask if there is an intent to modify or delay Hawkei's route to Final Operational Capability (FOC) prior to the federal election.
Defence had not responded to those questions by deadline.