• Could SP guns make a comeback? Credit: Hanwha via Sputnik
    Could SP guns make a comeback? Credit: Hanwha via Sputnik

News earlier this week that the government is bringing back self-propelled (SP) howitzers under a reinvigorated Land 17 Phase 2 program has generated some interesting discussion.

Some history needs to be kept in mind. Land 17 encompassed a range of technologies; the M-777 lighted towed gun, Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS) - the Fire Support Command and Control (C2) system and associated training for these systems.

The guns in the running at the time were the PzH 2000 from KMW/Rheinmetall and the Samsung Techwin/Raytheon AS-9 (based on the K-9 platform); both capable platforms in service with numerous militaries globally.

The SP gun was killed for Budget reasons at the federal level with the then-Chief of Army told he had to find savings somewhere or they would be presented to him. SP guns were offered up as the sacrificial lamb in 2012 and a few more M-777s were added into the mix.

At the time, there were questions surrounding the pros and cons of each of the guns and their relevant industrial support arrangements. The PzH 2000 is a German product with all the pedigree (and cost) that entails while the AS-9 was newer, cheaper but came from an unknown partner. AIC was not yet a driving factor in decision-making but was of course still in the mix. Both teams put substantial time and effort into their bids and were left hanging.

Fast forward to 2019 and a few things have changed. The M-777s, a sole source acquisition that the requirement was essentially written for (long before Smart Buyer was imagined), have seen cracking and a larger transport/logistics footprint than originally planned, according to the user community. Recent conflicts where tanks and direct/indirect fire support have been game changers (think Ukraine) have sharpened the argument for SP guns in the ADF order of battle. The number also raises questions - 30? Given the force structure of the ADF, how will 30 guns be split? Phase 3 of Land 400 also needs to be considered in this context of integration.

The other curious thing about the announcement of course is the timing and industrial strategy put forward in the Prime Ministerial release.

“We will utilise the outcomes of the tender process cancelled by Labor and the Coalition’s Smart Buyer framework, as the starting point of an accelerated approval process,” the statement said.

How? Despite Raytheon Australia quickly releasing a statement saying that they are on board to pick up where they left off, I’m not sure the K-9 OEM is on the same page. In fact, any mention of the South Korean giant was missing from the Raytheon statement.

Back in 2012, Raytheon worked with Samsung Techwin on the K-9 offer. Hanwha has since bought that company and is looking to prime their own bids in Australia. With literally thousands of pages in the box for their Land 400 Phase 3 bid, Hanwha is looking to build their own footprint - a footprint they plan to firmly plant in Geelong, the same place as the government is looking to build SP guns.

Why would Hanwha team with Raytheon on a ~$1 billion program for guns when they are looking to prime a ~$10 billion program in their own right? Various iterations of K-9 have been sold to numerous European nations since 2012, with South Korea-based Hanwha partnering with local industry in every case to deliver the capability.

The announcement also revealed that the government wants an Australian prime in charge. How is Raytheon Australia or any other local outfit of a foreign owned prime any different from Hanwha Australia in this case? It’s a simply a matter of size and scale. Hanwha is where Northrop Grumman was 10-15 years ago; a handful of locals building a base of future business based on a strong home market offering. But Hanwha as a global concern dwarfs most of the primes already in-country in their respective home markets.

Indeed as this edition of Defence Week went to press, Hanwha Australia released a statement.

"Hanwha Defence Australia’s Proposal to the Australian Army submitted in late 2018 for the provision of 30 K9 Thunder SPHs and 15 K10 ammunition resupply vehicles was the catalyst for this Government announcement and will be the basis moving forward directly with the Commonwealth as an Australian prime."

On the other side of the house, the PzH 2000 is a Rheinmetall supported product. Given Rheinmetall Defence Australia’s huge investment in southeast Queensland for their MILVECOE, why would Geelong beckon unless some serious concessions were made? Is the German gun even being considered at this point? There are so many unknowns.

Labor has not ruled out the program but is hedging its bets.

“A Shorten Labor Government will work with Army on the decision to acquire 30 self-propelling howitzers to make sure it gets the capability it needs, when it needs it,” according to a statement from Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles.

Reading between the lines; we want a better look at costs and timing before we sign up but we’re not ruling it out.

So is this just an election fancy, a timely announceable, in one of the most marginal seats in the country? Maybe. But it’s not out of the question for SP guns to be in the ADF’s future sooner rather than later regardless of the outcome of the election.

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