With a value of up to $15 billion for 450 new armoured, tracked infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), project Land 400 Phase 3 will be the largest single purchase in the history of the Australian Army.
Not just that. With so many IFVs to be bought in a single order, this is one of the most significant acquisitions of its type under way in the Western world — and has attracted the cream of international manufacturers.
The main purpose of these turreted vehicles — which typically weigh about 40 tonnes because of their armour — is to keep up with main battle tanks (MBTs) during combined arms operations in heavy combat, which is why they use tracks rather than wheels.
History shows that even a modern tank such as the army’s M1A1 Abrams is surprisingly vulnerable if unsupported by infantry. If alone, one of these could be destroyed by a single person creeping up on it with a bucket of petrol — let alone a well-trained enemy squad with anti-tank guided missiles.
The best defence against this danger is for the tank force to also have an organic infantry component — in the case of Australia, eight heavily-armed soldiers able to disembark, and a crew of three inside every IFV.
The army places great emphasis on survivability, so the vehicles are designed to withstand huge blasts from the likes of mines and improvised explosive devices. The IFVs also need to be able to both protect themselves and deliver fire support.
The requirement for Phase-3 competition is that they have a manned turret with a 30-millimetre automatic cannon as well as a heavy machine gun, defensive aids and various sensors, including radar and electro-optics.
Additionally, they require a comprehensive communications suite so they are part of a fully networked force.
Even though defence is secretive about the number of bidders — let alone who they are — it is clear the competition is a four-way race which will be reduced to two finalists as early as September.
There are several possibilities: if defence really wants vehicles that are in production, then the two most likely candidates are the Swedish CV90 built by BAE Systems — already in service with seven nations — and the General Dynamics-developed Ajax, being supplied in large numbers to the British army.
However, if they are prepared to accept a higher level of risk for vehicles that are purpose-designed for Australia, then both the Lynx — from the Phase 2 combat reconnaissance vehicle winner, Rheinmetall — and the Hanwha Redback are in good shape.
But any combination is possible because all bidders have technical pros and cons.
One must factor in Australian content — at a political level one of the most important considerations. From this angle the Lynx and especially the South Korean Redback can offer a great deal, with both able to establish a local production line with considerable export potential.
The bidders are being coy about what they have put in their responses because of commercial sensitivities — but all understand the importance of the issue.
Once the shortlist has been announced the tough part of the evaluation begins. So far, the companies have only supplied documents. The final phase requires each of the bidders to provide three IFVs for extensive testing in Australia in adverse conditions in different parts of the country.
In a methodology identical to that of Phase 2, the culmination will be blast-testing to the point of destruction of two of the competing vehicles. This will take place under strictly controlled conditions to verify the survivability characteristics of each.
This will be an expensive exercise for the companies involved. The cost of three IFVs, fine-tuned for Australian requirements and supported in-country for one year, will be more than $100 million. That will be fine for the winner, because they will be the recipient of one of the largest IFV contracts in the world.
The loser will be in a less happy position, with the Defence Department agreeing only to reimburse reasonable costs — and there is likely to be a debate about that.
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