The debate over the role, utility and importance of the tank capability in the ADF is often speculative and pejorative. This paper aims to inform this debate by examining the role of the tank, illustrating its enduring importance to the Joint Land Force.

‘Mobility is crucial – only movement brings victory. However, that mobility must be protected so that the weapons of the weak such as IEDs do not kill unprotected soldiers. Firepower is critical when you fight. Before you get to work your social magic on ‘the people’ you have to win the fight against an armed opposition. Combat power still counts.’

Major General Craig Orme, Commander of Australia’s forces Iraq in 2014.

The tank is a unique contributor to the ADF’s combat power. It provides a matchless combination of firepower, mobility, protection and connectivity to the modern Australian soldier. The tank is unique amongst ground combat vehicles; it alone is designed to specifically enter, fight and endure alongside soldiers in close combat. While it was designed in response to the stalemate of trench warfare in the First World War, it has continued to evolve ever since.

Both guardian angel of the infantry and highly capable tank-killer, the tank is ideally suited to aggressive mobile action in concert with other arms and services.

From the battlefields of France through to Afghanistan, Australian soldiers have fought with tanks, be they Australian, British or American. These experiences reinforce the importance of the tank to the Joint Land Force, from stability operations to conventional war. Elementally, tanks increase the chances of winning in combat and reduce friendly casualties.

However, discussion surrounding the tank in Australian service is often clouded by speculation rather than fact. This is a result of a weak understanding of what they are and do. This is compounded by the time which has elapsed since the ADF has deployed its own tank forces. However, it is unwise to ignore the advantage that this capability provides Australian soldiers because of a short memory or a myopic view of land warfare. This short paper will explain the importance of the tank to the ADF in the 21st Century.

It will describe why the tank is unique, why a credible tank capability is essential to the Joint Land Force and highlight its relevance within the current strategic environment. It concludes by examining some of the challenges to sustaining the capability and offers some ways to address these. This paper is not a detailed examination of the evolution of tanks or a review of its operational employment, although aspects of each are touched upon. These facets have been examined elsewhere in much greater detail than available here.

What is a tank and why is it unique?
The tank is the ‘predator supreme’ of land forces. Tanks are armoured fighting vehicles (AFV) – machines designed to destroy and protect. Tanks are typically equipped with a turret featuring a large calibre cannon and machine guns which fire at a target within eye sight (direct fire). Tanks are fitted with protective armour to survive all but the most significant threats faced on the battlefield. Further, a tanks propulsion system and tracked drive train enable it to move across country at high speed and fight alongside infantry soldiers on broken ground. Army’s current fleet of 59 M1A1 Situational Awareness Main Battle Tanks, M1 hereafter, was acquired in 2006 to replace the aged Leopard AS1 tank which had been in service since 1977.

The M1, like all AFV, is a blend of design trade-offs which create a unique combination of characteristics. These characteristics are firepower, mobility and protection – colloquially known as the ‘Iron Triangle’ of AFV design. The M1 complements the other AFVs in the ADF’s inventory; including the Australian Service Light Armoured Vehicle (ASLAV) and the M113AS4 Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), each of which have a different balance of trade-offs. To understand why the tank is unique among armoured vehicles a brief examination of these characteristics is necessary.

First, the tank generates the greatest amount of direct firepower of any land vehicle. Firepower is the measure of the amount of ‘fire’ or shots a capability can generate, the effect of these shots on a target and how long these effects can be sustained. The M1’s firepower centres upon a 120mm cannon which fires a variety of munitions to destroy tanks, other armoured vehicles, low flying aircraft, fortifications and buildings. The tank is also equipped with a heavy machine gun and two medium machine guns which fire rapidly at less well protected targets such as trucks, utility vehicles and soldiers.

Importantly, these weapons are mated to an advanced fire control system which allows accurate, stable long range direct fire for several kilometres whilst the vehicle is moving. This system incorporates a 2nd Generation Forward Looking Infra-Red thermal imager which allows the tank to see by day and night; enabling it to detect, discriminate and engage a target with accurate direct fire often beyond the range of adversary systems. This fire can be applied at long range with precision and at close range to provide an overwhelming weight of fire support. The tank stores a large amount of ammunition for all these weapons, allowing it to fight for prolonged periods without rearming.

In comparison a Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV) like the ASLAV, which will be replaced under Land 400 Phase Two, is equipped with a small calibre rapid firing auto-cannon and machine guns. These provide the ability to fight for information and self defence, however, have less utility in destroying fixed installations and heavier AFV. CRV are primarily tasked to find an enemy force’s vulnerabilities and exploit them, not engage in sustained close combat. Recent experience in Afghanistan highlights the ASLAV’s limitations in the direct fire support role.

‘While the 25mm [auto-cannon] is an excellent weapon for traditional cavalry operations, it had significant limitations in its range and penetration, which was amplified when the enemy were able to use thick walls for cover… the 25mm was unable to penetrate a number of structures used by the enemy. From my experience, I am confident that the infantry would have been provided far better protection and direct fire support… should we have been equipped with MBT [tank] in Afghanistan.’

Email provided by Cavalry Troop Leader regarding an engagement which occurred on 24 August 2010 around the village of Derapet.

Similarly APCs, which are optimised to transport infantry and cargo around the battlespace, often make compromises in terms of firepower and protection to do so. APCs are frequently equipped with self-protection weapons systems only, lacking the range and destructive effects of cannon. Likewise, to optimise their mobility and carrying capacity, they may feature far less armour to shield them from direct fire, sacrificing some protection. This limits how and where they can transport and accompany infantry. An evolution beyond the APC is the Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV). IFV are tracked AFV designed to transport infantry into battle and fight with them in close combat.

IFV designs may trade some carrying capacity for greater firepower and protection and achieve mobility akin to the tank. Like tanks IFV seek to quickly close with the enemy, however do so to dismount their infantry virtually on top of an objective. This maintains the tempo of the assault, narrows the window in which enemy weapons can be employed against unprotected infantry and positions the IFV to provide fire support. IFVs are generally equipped with a medium cannon and machine guns to provide suppressing fires to fix an enemy force in place. An IFVs auto-cannon is optimised to provide rapid suppression to protect infantry and tanks by countering enemy heavy weapons such as machine guns and anti-armour systems.

Importantly, tanks, IFVs and the infantry which they carry into battle, fight as a team. The destructive firepower of the tank, complements the suppressive firepower of the IFV. The infantry provide intimate protection to both vehicle systems in close combat, where firepower and protection advantages may be negated, and capture terrain from the enemy.

While IFV fight with tanks and infantry in a symbiotic relationship, IFV are not tanks and should not be misconstrued as a replacement for them. The IFV, tank and CRV are to the Army what landing ships, frigates and submarines are to a navy and transport, fighter and reconnaissance aircraft are to air forces. These each perform different, but complementary, roles.

  • Cavalry find the enemy and exploit their weaknesses.
  • Infantry Fighting Vehicles fix the enemy and Infantry capture terrain.
  • Tanks destroy the enemy.

Second, a common misperception is that the tank has poor mobility within Australia’s region and is not deployable. This is not true and as others have previously written ‘the idea that tanks are difficult or impossible to deploy is, in short, a myth.’

The ill-informed often argue that weight limits the tank’s tactical mobility, preventing it from operating effectively on soft, boggy terrain and heavily vegetated areas. Others suggest that the M1 has poor strategic mobility e.g. it is so heavy that it cannot be deployed to and sustained within a conflict zone. However, mobility is characterised by more than weight and a cursory analysis of these key factors illustrates the hollowness of these statements.

In terms of tactical mobility the M1 eclipses all other ground-based vehicles. Tactical mobility is the combination of vehicle speed, rate of turn, climb, obstacle crossing ability and trafficability — key attributes when moving to and engaged in combat. The M1 can rapidly accelerate to around 65 kilometres per hour on road and travel off road at around 50 kilometres per hour, allowing it to sprint between positions of cover.

It can ‘pivot’ or turn on its own axis, climb a 60 per cent slope or a metre high wall and cross a gap of about three metres, such as a trench, at speed. Notably, while the tracked M113 possesses a tighter turn rate and the wheeled ASLAV a higher on road speed, both vehicles have significantly less capability in traversing broken terrain, crossing obstacles or turning in the narrow confines of a street.

Trafficability, or the tractive and pushing power of the vehicle, is influenced by vehicle ground pressure and engine power to weight ratio. The M1 generates lower ground pressure than the ASLAV and M113 as well as the wheeled protected mobility vehicles which have been routinely deployed in the region and globally. This is because a tank’s weight is evenly distributed across hundreds of pieces of track, rather than four or eight wheels. Rather than an ‘elephant in stilettos’, the M1 tank is more akin to a ‘centipede in sneakers’.

Furthermore, the M1 harnesses the power of a jet engine. The M1’s Army Ground Turbine 1500 horsepower (hp) gas turbine engine has the power to propel it through difficult terrain which lighter vehicles cannot ‘push’ through, such as boggy ground or jungle. The tank’s engine far surpasses the M113AS4’s and ASLAVs diesel engines which produce 350 and 275 hp respectively.

These characteristics allow the tank to cross a variety of terrain types such as jungle, desert or savannah and crush or drive through obstacles such as barbed wire entanglements, concrete blocks, trees, car bodies and even buildings. This high degree of tactical mobility allows tanks to close with the enemy on ground of their choice, and their advantage, rather than be channelled into an area of the enemies choosing.

Historically, tanks were often the only vehicle with sufficient tactical mobility to support Australian soldiers during the South West Pacific Campaign (fought in our region) during the Second World War. Tanks were used extensively to support infantry to secure heavily fortified objectives in New Guinea, Papua and Bougainville. Australian troops also conducted numerous amphibious landings utilising tanks such as at Labuan, Tarakan and Balikpapan.

In US service they were also employed to destroy other tanks, such as occurred during the battles on Saipan where the US Marine Corps destroyed 48 Japanese tanks. Likewise, the British and Japanese armies also utilised tanks during the war in Burma and Malaya. The ADF’s M1 tank has far greater tactical mobility than the tanks used during these campaigns and can rely upon far more capable assets to provide it strategic mobility.

While the M1 is larger and heavier than the M113 and ASLAV, it should not be concluded that the tank cannot be deployed and has poor strategic mobility because of these factors. The M1 can deploy via tank transporter trucks on road and via Australian rail. Army has routinely employed both methods between the Northern Territory, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland in support of training. This capability will grow as project Land 121 delivers a range of Heavy Equipment Transporters and trailers to enhance Army’s road transport assets.

Likewise, the M1 tank is transportable via the ADF’s C-17 Globemaster aircraft. The strategic airlift capability of the C-17 has been demonstrated operationally numerous times. In 2003 C-17s lifted five M1 tanks and five M2 IFVs from Germany to an airfield behind enemy lines in Iraq. In Afghanistan they deployed a Canadian Army 15 tank armoured squadron and an armoured engineer troop and a 17 tank USMC tank company in 2006 and 2010 respectively. Australia’s own C-17s have also demonstrated this capability lifting.

Further, the Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious ships provide the ability to lift much larger quantities of land forces between ports. These ships, complemented by the Landing Ship Dock (LSD) HMAS Choules, each have the ability to lift over a squadron of tanks at a time, as well as the personnel, stores and equipment to crew, support and sustain them.

As the Australian amphibious system matures the introduction of more and more capable ship to shore connectors and Army watercraft, such as envisioned under project Land 8710 Phase One, will provide greater flexibility to transport AFVs in riverine and coastal settings.

Third, the tank has the highest level of physical protection of any ground combat vehicle. Neither the ASLAV nor M113 have sufficient protection to accompany infantry onto an objective in a high threat environment and are at increased risk when providing static fire support. The limitations of lightly protected vehicles in the latter role are highlighted below:

“Based on the effects of fire from an RPG [rocket propelled grenade] that landed close to an ASLAV, an impact from that round would have caused significant damage…When these munitions were fired at the overwatch position, our vehicles were forced to move to avoid being hit, often leaving dismounted infantry with no vehicle protection.”

Email from Cavalry Troop Leader explaining the limitations of the ASLAV during his tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2011-12.

Likewise, given its primary role is to provide armoured transport, the M113’s design trades firepower and protection for greater internal volume, or ‘lift’ capacity. The lightly protected M113 APC was designed to deliver infantry to an area out of contact, the infantry then close with the enemy on foot.

Consequently, the infantry devoid of armoured protection are not only exposed to lethal fire from rifles and machine guns as they close with an enemy, but are exposed for longer periods. For the infantry soldier fighting on the ground, the tank provides both a physical shield and a means to destroy targets. The infantry are protected from enemy fire by the vehicle itself as they close with the enemy and they can direct the fire of the tank to destroy targets that they cannot. This intimate support is essential in close combat as it provides the infantry soldier with an overwhelming advantage.

The enduring and imposing physical presence of the tank in this role provides an intangible boost to morale that instils confidence in soldiers in lethal environments. One infantry commander recounted in his recollection of the Battle of Binh Bah, which involved close infantry-tank cooperation, that ‘… an infantryman feels invincible when standing next to a monster,’ according to Brigadier Colin Khan, Commanding Officer of 5th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment during the Battle of Binh Bah in South Vietnam 1969, to the 2008 Combat Officers Advanced Course.

When the tanks base armour is coupled with other protective measures such as long range sensors and communications systems shielded against cyber attacks, electronic counter measures effective against improvised explosive devices and defensive aid suites which ‘shoot down’ incoming rockets and missiles, its protection is unsurpassed on the battlefield.

While it is not invincible, neither the ASLAV nor M113 have sufficient protection to protect like the tank does. Furthermore, until an IFV which can deliver infantry onto an objective and support them is introduced into service, as planned under Land 400 Phase 3, the M1 is the only ADF vehicle that can provide intimate support to the infantry during close combat.

Only the tank has the necessary protection levels to withstand prolonged exposure to enemy weapon systems. In short – the tank can take a hit and keep fighting.

Given these characteristics, the tank is indeed unique. The tank is designed to move, endure, fight and win in the close combat zone which unprotected humans and lightly protected vehicles cannot survive. In simple terms, CRVs, IFVs and APCs are not tanks. These AFV all make different design trade-offs to tailor vehicle performance to their primary role. Importantly, because of these design trade-offs each of these vehicles and armour in general have inherent vulnerabilities. These are protected by fighting as part of a team.

The tank is unique; no other capability in the ADF can provide the advantages it provides in close combat.

Why is the tank important to Army and the Joint Land Force?
Army defines a combined arms team as the grouping of land systems that together overmatch an adversary’s use of individual weapon systems. This grouping includes, as a minimum, armour, artillery, infantry, combat engineers and aviation. All of these elements are needed as each possess different characteristics and provide different effects to the team.

While artillery provides immense indirect firepower to the team, it has limited tactical mobility and protection. Infantry and engineers lack inherent firepower and mobility, but can fight to seize and hold almost any terrain type and shape terrain for use against the enemy.

Aviation (helicopters) whilst well-armed and largely unconstrained by terrain, do not have the persistent presence of ground forces. Armour provides a unique blend of direct firepower, mobility and protection to this team. Although Armour incurs a logistics burden and is by no means invulnerable, it is an essential element of the combined arms team. As one armour advocate has offered ‘Armored [sic] vehicles are immensely important, unless you are building a force to re-enact World War I’.

The battles fought by Australian combined arm teams with tanks in New Guinea, Borneo, Korea and Vietnam shaped the decision to buy the M1, and reinforce the need to maintain it. Studies by the University of New South Wales on combat action in Vietnam demonstrated that a combined arms team which included tanks greatly reduced the number of Australian casualties sustained in combat. In the jungle this reduced Australian casualties from 1 Australian killed for every 1 enemy killed, to 0.6 Australians for every 1 enemy killed. Similarly, the success rate of the action jumped from around 50 per cent when tanks were not part of the combined arms team to 95 per cent when they were.

The Israeli Defence Force shared similar deductions with the RAND Corporation during its detailed analysis of Operation Cast Lead conducted in Gaza during 2008-9. Through discussion with Israeli Army officers RAND surmised ‘Quite simply, armored [sic] forces reduce operational risks and minimize friendly casualties.’ This analysis was mirrored by the experience of Canadian officers in Afghanistan who cited that their ‘Leopard C2 tanks have saved Canadian and Afghan lives’. Without tanks there is a capability gap which lowers the odds of success in combat and increases the likelihood of casualties.

Tanks increase the likelihood of mission success and decrease the likelihood of Australian casualties.

Following Vietnam the ADFs focus on joint warfare became paramount. Combined arms teams now form the foundation of Army’s contributions to the Joint Land Force. This force is a combination of naval, air and land assets, which together deliver joint effects during land combat. However, some have suggested that aircraft, drones and precision fires have or will eventually replace the tank in this force.

This speculation reveals a poor understanding of the tank and what it provides. Aerial delivered munitions, precision artillery fires and land attack cruise missiles provide the ability to strike and destroy identified targets at range. Although these provide phenomenal firepower to the Joint Land Force, they like all capabilities, have inherent limitations which preclude them from replacing the tank.

These systems are subject to the effects of adverse weather and have varying levels of persistence and presence on the battlefield, which limit the ability to detect, locate and identify enemy forces. Tanks do not leave the battle when the weather deteriorates or visibility reduces and are not subject to the same constraints of air or remotely operated forces. The difficulty of targeting mobile forces from the air, and the utility of the tank to the joint force, is illustrated by this statement from an Iraqi tank battalion commander during the 1991 Gulf War; ‘when I went into Kuwait I had 39 tanks, after six weeks of bombardment I had 32 left, after 20 minutes in action against M1’s, I had none’.

It is as illogical to claim that air delivered precision munitions provide the same capability as a tank as it is to argue that air defence missiles replace fighter jets or that torpedo boats could replace frigates.

The tank’s strengths actually complement aircraft and other Joint Land Force elements. The so called Blitzkrieg campaigns of the Second World War, the Arab-Israeli, Gulf, Afghan and Iraq wars all highlight the effectiveness of the tank operating in partnership with aircraft in combat. The tank is designed to endure and fight in close proximity to the enemy.

It is ideally postured, given its sensors, communications systems and protection, to coordinate firepower from the Joint Land Force at the point of decision. Furthermore, the paucity of some ADF platforms, particularly scarce helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, necessitates a balanced range of options to support the combined arms team, including the tank.

Additionally tanks, and armour, provide a level of responsiveness, mobility and protection when integrated as part of the combined arms team that precision fires, aerial fire support or naval gunfire simply cannot. Land forces provide complementary effects to the joint team, as the Israeli experience in Lebanon shows

‘The IDF had learned in Lebanon that, in the absence of pressure from ground forces, its adversaries knew how to avoid detection and attack by overhead platforms. In Gaza, IDF ground maneuver [sic] “forced the enemy to react, to move, to expose himself. Taking them from amorphous in nature to shaped, which is critical in an urban area. Thus, ground maneuver was critical in creating targets for ground and air fires. Fires were also important because they “paralyzed the enemy,” thus fixing his position. This allowed IDF ground forces to close with Hamas fighters who were reluctant to expose themselves to attack from air or artillery. The Israeli Navy, in addition to blockading Gaza, also provided fires and UAV support for ground forces.’

Air, Naval and Land forces are all essential to the joint team. Given the unique effects that tanks provide, a Joint Land Force committed to combat without them does so at a disadvantage.

Tanks are a key part of the Joint Land Force. They provide unique effects in close combat and enable the delivery of joint effects from air and naval capabilities.

The relevance of the tank to Australia’s strategic context
The 2016 Australian Defence White Paper specifies that ‘… the future force will be more agile and potent. The future force will be more capable of conducting independent combat operations to defend Australia and protect our interests in the immediate region. This force will also enhance Australia’s ability to contribute to global coalition operations.

“Achieving Australia’s Strategic Defence Objectives requires land forces that have the mobility, firepower, protection and situational awareness to deploy quickly to where they are needed, achieve their missions safely and return home. The Government will make significant new investments in our land forces, including new combat vehicles.

“Soldiers in the future Army will be supported by new vehicles and manned and unmanned aircraft with increased firepower, protection, mobility, situational awareness and logistics support. The Government will replace the Army’s current ageing fleet of mobility and reconnaissance vehicles with a new generation of armoured combat reconnaissance and infantry fighting vehicles, as well as tank upgrades and new combat engineering equipment.”

As these paragraphs highlight, Australia requires combat capabilities which deploy quickly with sufficient mobility, firepower and protection to achieve their mission without undue risk. As the preceding paragraphs have illustrated the tank provides the Joint Land Force with such a blend of capabilities.

Yet there remain those unconvinced of the relevance of the tank to this strategic imperative. Some claim that Army bought the M1 to fight a far-fetched Cold War scenario and that tanks are not relevant in our region. Others suggest the tank is an unnecessary capability which we have not deployed in decades and are not needed for the conflicts we may choose to fight. In the strategic context provided by Government on what is required of the ADF in future combat operations, and given the unique capabilities the tank provides, these assertions are highly questionable.

An Australian tank capability is critical to deter and defeat armed attacks against Australia and its interests. Tanks are necessary for future independent combat operation to defend Australia and as part of combat operations regionally and globally. Tanks and other AFVs are the foundation of credible conventional land deterrence for Australia.

They also provide the bulk of land combat power if deterrence fails. This is recognised regionally and globally. The tank is a key element of all major regional armies including those of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea and China. Notably, all of these countries are in the process of replacing or modernising their tank capabilities.

The tank remains and is increasingly relevant in our region as modern and highly capable tanks, AFVs and anti-armour weapons proliferate. And while the ADF is a small force by regional standards, importantly it retains qualitative technological advantages in key areas. Thus the notion that the tank is a Cold War relic only suited to the Russian steppe is simply not accurate – tanks are in widespread use in our region. A credible M1 tank capability is therefore important to maintaining the ADF’s deterrent value and defeating attacks upon Australian interests.

Contrary to the argument that Australians don’t deploy or fight with tanks, historically Australian soldiers have fought with tanks in every major conflict land forces have been committed to including; France, North Africa, the Levant, the South West Pacific, Korea, South Vietnam and most recently in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan in October 2012 the Australian Special Operations Task Group fought alongside tanks during operations in northern Helmand Province. Like their British counterparts who were reliant on a small detachment of Danish tanks, the Australian force in Afghanistan were reliant upon the support provided by a US Marine Corps tank company. These tanks conducted tasks including direct fire support, obstacle breaching, intimate support, information gathering and served as a significant deterrent. The Australian Special Operations Task Group commander advised that:

‘The M1 system enabled the Commando Company Group to close with an enemy who was defensively arrayed in a series of positions that were heavily defended with IEDs, anti-personnel mines, snipers and heavy weapons.’

Therefore, while Australian tanks may have last served in South Vietnam, Australia has fought with US tanks and employed its other AFVs in recent operations including East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. Tanks and armour in general, remain a very important element to future Australian military operations both regionally and globally.

Whether future commitments are regional or global, or their nature is humanitarian, counter-insurgency or major war; the Joint Land Force must be prepared for combat. History has demonstrated that benign situations can, very quickly, turn to open conflict. The 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, popularised by the film Black Hawk Down, provides an example of how quickly a benign situation can deteriorate and the strategic importance of maintaining a balanced robust force, even on peace keeping operations.

In October 1993, a US Special Operations force attempted to capture a Somali warlord and his retinue. In the course of the raid two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and the lightly armed and protected quick reaction forces sent to recover the personnel from the downed aircraft were isolated and in danger of being overrun. Eventually these forces were rescued by a combined Malaysian and Pakistani United Nations armoured vehicle convoy which included M60 tanks. 18 US soldiers were killed in action and a further 73 were wounded during the course of the raid and subsequent recovery operations.

Notably, in the month prior to the ill-fated raid, the commanding US General in Somalia had requested M1 tanks and Bradley M2 IFVs to augment US quick reaction forces. This request was denied by the office of the US Secretary of Defence due to the perceived optics of deploying tanks to the peace keeping operation.

Consequently, US ground based quick reaction forces were reliant on light, unprotected trucks and jeeps when they responded to the crash sites – with tragic results. In the aftermath of this incident US Secretary of Defence Les Aspin stepped down as a result of his office’s decision to refuse these requests for tanks, armoured vehicles and AC130 aircraft to support the mission.19

Perhaps learning from this and in response to the uncertainty of operations during the Australian led intervention in East Timor in 1999, the ADF placed a squadron of Leopard tanks on standby to deploy at short notice, had the mission disintegrated into close combat. One soldier offered that: ‘If it [the largely unopposed lodgements and subsequent deployment of INTERFET forces] had gone a different way and we didn’t have the Leopards, then we would have been fighting with one arm behind our backs.’

Australia cannot be lulled into the falsity that it has the luxury to merely contribute forces of choice to wars of choice. Australia cannot now, nor has it been able to in the past, accurately predict the wars it fights.

The expectation that Australia can opt out of conflict when its interests are involved, either in our region or globally, is naïve and potentially dangerous. It also ignores the reality of the connected world where we are bound to many nations by diplomacy, information, economics, heritage and culture. Australia may find itself embroiled in crises or conflict, which it can neither choose to nor afford to avoid.

Further, the proliferation of technologies formerly associated with high end conventional threats into the hands of non-state actors in recent conflicts, such as those being fought in Gaza, Syria and Iraq, points to increasing levels of lethality on any battlefield of the future. As a result, even Australian forces deployed on peacekeeping missions in the future may face the threat of highly lethal weapons.

It is important to remind ourselves that the enemy has a vote in battle – if the threat warrants it, Australia may be forced to send highly capable combat forces to achieve humanitarian objectives. This is why protection remains a high priority for Army in its acquisition of a new generation of armoured vehicles as described within the Governments strategic guidance.

Maintaining a credible, deployable and sustainable M1 tank capability.
Given the importance of the M1 Abrams tank to the ADF, does Australia have enough tanks to provide a sustainable basis to train the Joint Land Force and deploy a credible capability if required? Training the force includes individual and collective training at Army schools and combat brigades.

When the aforementioned combined arms approach, air-land integration and drilling in amphibious manoeuvre are also considered, this training places a significant burden on the tank fleet. However, this training is necessary to generate combat ready tank squadrons available to deploy on operations.

An assessment of the M1’s predecessors indicates that deploying a tank squadron on operations also places heavy demands on the tank capability. To deploy and sustain a tank squadron group of around 26 vehicles in South Vietnam, Australia maintained a fleet of around 128 Centurion tanks. Following Vietnam, these were replaced by 90 Leopard AS1 tanks in 1977 to provide a three-squadron tank regiment to maintain infantry-tank skills and remain abreast of developments in contemporary armoured warfare.

In turn these were replaced in 2006 by 59 M1 Abrams tanks, or around two thirds of the previous fleet. While the number of M1s acquired is arguably more a product of the resources available at that time than an accurate reflection of the actual tanks required, it does reflect a downward trend in fleet size over time. When training and operational requirements are considered, does the ADF have the critical mass to train the Joint Land Force and deploy a credible tank capability on operations?

A brief examination of the Canadian Army, of similar size and composition to the Australian Army, and their experience with their tank fleet is informative. By the early 2000s the value of the tank to the Canadian Army was in question as these had not deployed to a combat zone since the Korean War, over 50 years prior.

Consequently, Canada planned to replace its aged Leopard 1 tanks with a lighter wheeled mobile gun system. However combat experience in Afghanistan led to a reversal of this decision. Canadian forces had encountered fierce opposition from an enemy who were well equipped and liberally employed improvised explosive devices to reduce their mobility.

This left the Canadians, who lacked heavy combat power such as tanks, fighting at a distinct disadvantage against a determined enemy. Consequently, Leopard tanks and Badger armoured engineer vehicles were deployed to provide combat overmatch to defeat the enemy and restore mobility to the battlefield. The successful employment of these systems led Canada to revitalise its tank capability in 2007.

The Canadian Army Journal summarises this decision succinctly ‘By deploying tanks and armoured engineers to Afghanistan in October 2006 and supporting the acquisition of the Leopard 2, the leadership of the Canadian Forces (CF) has acknowledged the importance of maintaining heavy armour in a balanced force.

While the continued development of sensors and technology will be extremely important to achieving improved situational awareness (SA) on the battlefield, the hard-earned experiences of the Canadian Army and our allies in sustained combat in Afghanistan and Iraq have proven we must be prepared to get our hands dirty and come into physical contact with the enemy if we wish to define their strength, composition and intentions, and subsequently kill them. Canadian tanks and armoured engineers have better protected our dismounted infantry soldiers in Southern Afghanistan, allowing them to close with and destroy a fanatical and determined enemy in extremely complex terrain.’

To revitalise its tank capability, Canada’s Department of National Defence decreed that it would acquire 100 modern tanks as this number represented ‘the minimum fleet size to support a deployed tank squadron’.24 This number was sufficient to provide for two combat-ready squadrons of approximately 20 tanks each: the first for deployment and a second for rotation into theatre to allow for depot repair and overhaul of the first. This number also provided a third squadron supporting collective training and a fourth squadron to facilitate individual training.

Additional vehicles included armoured recovery vehicles and armoured engineer vehicles. The Canadian Forces eventually acquired 127 vehicles: 82 tanks, 12 armoured recovery vehicles, 18 armoured engineer vehicles and 15 tanks as spares. Thus in light of the Canadian experience and Australia’s similar individual and collective training approach, it is questionable whether the ADF’s M1 fleet is sufficient to enable it to deploy and sustain a tank squadron on operations for a prolonged period.

In terms of tank sustainment, the US Army, which developed the M1 tank system during the 1970s, employs the world’s best practices to sustain the tank. Advice from the US Army Tank Automotive and Armaments Command indicates that to generate a tank capability that is available for training and operations, treatment of risk factors such as fleet age, rate of effort (usage), parts availability, maintenance effort and fleet size are critical.

Complementary studies of the M1 tank in US service by the RAND Institute demonstrate that the combination of age and training tempo result in higher costs as vehicles breakdown more frequently and consume parts quicker.

Further, this maintenance liability increases with the age of the vehicle. These factors correlate to the challenges the ADF faces in the generation of a sustainable tank capability. The small Australian M1 fleet is now 10 years old and endures a rate of effort at least twice that when compared to US Army units. While this maintains a high standard of training and proficiency, this also places significant stress on the vehicle, reducing the mean time between components failing and increasing the number of components which fail – more things break more often.

This training is routinely conducted in some of the harshest tank -training environments in the world ranging from dry desert to wet tropical jungle, further exacerbating these factors. Consequently, the M1 tank is wearing out faster than anticipated, which ultimately affects the ADF’s ability to generate the unique effects the tank provides in combat. This is compounded by Australia being at the end of a very long supply chain extending back to the US for items such as track, fire control systems and ammunition.

Fleet size underwrites all of these issues. When balanced against the remit of Army’s training requirements, the small M1 fleet size results in the vast majority of vehicles committed to training and few held in reserve to enable rotation for repairs, maintenance or upgrades. This means vehicles remain in service, or are pressed back into service prematurely, with outstanding repairs or maintenance tasks or simply becoming unserviceable and therefore unavailable.

This in turn subtracts from the fleet size, leading to an even smaller number of vehicles absorbing a greater rate of effort burden to meet the training requirement, and wearing out faster or breaking down more often as a result. This cause and effect interplay creates a cycle which leads inexorably to deterioration of the tank capability. How does the ADF sustain the tank capability into the future when these factors are considered?

There are several measures that the ADF may take to help preserve the M1 fleet until it is upgraded in the early part of the next decade under Project Land 907 Phase Two. First, a greater emphasis on simulation systems in training would reduce the physical burden on the M1 fleet. The introduction of tactical simulators would enable the judicious replacement of some field training with synthetic surrogates.

This may improve training outcomes through the provision of greater evidence based after action analysis, greater frequency of exposure to training serials and enable exposure to complex training serials which are difficult to replicate in the field. Simulation also lowers the risk of these difficult training serials and potentially affords savings to the ADF.

Second, steps such as the manufacture of spare parts domestically to shorten lines of supply and fatten stocks will likely improve parts availability. Standardising and export of repair procedures and expanding heavy maintenance to regional repair organisations would help increase efficiency. The effects of age however, can only be reversed through a rebuild process.

This presents an opportunity to increase the involvement of the Australian industrial base. Rebuilding tanks requires growth in the capacity, expertise and capability of the industry base. This would require commitment from Government, Defence and industry to deliver. Furthermore, a proven rebuild capability may subsequently result in follow on opportunities to conduct the upgrade of the tank fleet under Land 907 Phase 2 or assembly of the armoured engineering systems forecast under Land 8160 Phase One.

Likewise both of these projects offer significant opportunities for Australian industry to increase its through life support to the M1 tank capability as described in recent Defence policy.

Ultimately, successful capability management requires a ‘right sized’ fleet to ensure that adequate vehicles are provided to meet organisational need. Without the right number of vehicles across the fleet, even a greatly expanded maintenance effort supported by domestic parts supply cannot overcome the negative effects that training tempo and fleet age place upon the capability. Vehicles are not only required in the operational tank squadrons and in training schools but are also required to provision a robust repair and sustainment pool.

The size of this base should be sufficient to enable a ‘best practice’ maintenance regime to be applied, facilitating fleet rotation to reduce the burden per vehicle in regional areas and enabling major servicing, repairs and upgrades on a national level. A regime such as this would yield improved vehicle serviceability and availability rates.

For the present, the small fleet size is and will remain a significant constraint on the ADF unless a cost effective method can be developed to acquire sufficient vehicles to provision the operational and training forces as well as a robust sustainment pool. Without a ‘right sized’ fleet the ADFs tank capability will face even greater challenges as it continues to age.

Note: This article first appeared as an Australian Army Modernisation Branch discussion paper in November 2016. It was published in the September 2018 edition of ADM. 

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