US analysts question purchase of Abrams tanks


US analysts question purchase of Abrams tanks

The World Today - Monday, 15 March , 2004

Reporter: Leigh Sales

HAMISH ROBERTSON: The United States military is looking at ways of getting an M1A1 Abrams battle tank here as soon as possible, so the Australian Army can get up to speed with its new equipment.

The Howard Government announced last week that it's spending $550 million to buy 59 Abrams tanks, but they won't be ready for action until 2007.

Pentagon documents show that Australia is getting a good financial deal with its purchase.

But, as our North America Correspondent Leigh Sales reports, a number of US analysts are questioning whether the tanks suit Australia's defence needs.

LEIGH SALES: The Pentagon's looking at ways it can rush one of the Abrams M1A1s to Australia.

One option is that marines on training in the region will make a detour to drop off a tank.

A second possibility is that the vehicle could be sent to Victoria for the International Air Show, early next year.

A US Defence official says Australia's received a great deal with this purchase, and that quote: "we wouldn't make this offer to just any country".

To see if that's true, the ABC's checked the Pentagon and State Department foreign military sales notifications.

Only one other nation, Egypt, has bought Abrams tanks since 2001. Australia's paid around $US7.2 million per tank and associated equipment, Egypt's paid about $1 million more. Experts in the US and Europe agree that financially, Australia's got a good package.

John Roos is the Editor of the Armed Forces Journal.

JOHN ROOS: The going price for an MI tank today would be between $4 million and $5 million, just for the tank itself. Again, these are an evolutionary beast, if you would, wiring harnesses are constantly being changed, for example, you're putting in a redundant fire control systems. It's really a work in progress, so $7.2 million certainly doesn't seem out of the ball park.

LEIGH SALES: Australia may have got a bargain, but more controversial is whether the money's been spent wisely when it comes to Australia's defence needs.

With the purchase of the Abrams tanks, Australia's decided to maintain a force which can fight high intensity, conventional warfare. But other nations of a similar international stature are taking a different route.

For example, Canada had to upgrade its tanks last year, but unlike Australia, it decided not to get replacements, instead going for light armoured vehicles more suited to peacekeeping and post-conflict operations.

Jeff Kojac is a former staffer on the White House's National Security Council, and he's now with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. He believes Australia's made the wrong choice, when one considers the sort of security threats it faces.

JEFF KOJAC: A conventional army isn't going to invade Australia. Tanks don't do anything to protect Australia against illegal migrants, drug traffickers, terrorists, piracy at sea, or they don't do anything for fisheries protection and then even with the combat missions and post-conflict operations, I think that Australia should focus on supporting combat missions with its special forces. Its special forces proved particularly valiant in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

As far as doing more than that, I don't know if that's necessarily a good idea. Maybe it should delegate tank battles to the United States and Great Britain.

LEIGH SALES: So how will these tanks be used then?

JEFF KOJAC: Well, you got me. I have no idea.

HAMISH ROBERTSON: That was former staffer on the White House's National Security Council, analyst Jeff Kojac. He was speaking to Leigh Sales in Washington.

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