What is it with pollies and tanks?

What is with politicians and tanks and other armoured vehicles?

In 1988 Michael Dukakis doomed his already slim US presidential hopes by allowing himself to look ridiculous in a 68 tonne Abrams Main Battle Tank. Liz Truss, possibly the next Tory PM, was ridiculed for appearing in full military gig in Estonia. Kim Beazley (Bomber Beazley to colleagues) was often perched on military vehicles.

Scott Morrison, in between squeezing into Bathurst 500 cars, squeezed into a fighter jet and even Malcolm Turnbull was pictured in a Victorian-built armoured vehicle – albeit a tad uncomfortably – while dressed in an elegant suit rather than combat gear.

Peter Dutton, while Defence Minister, announced a $3.5 billion deal to procure Abrams tank in January 2022 and took the opportunities for some suitable picture ops.

It was hardly ideal timing when it coincided with Ukrainian efforts against Russian invaders; the geographic and geopolitical realities of our region; and, our deficit problems were all raising some doubts about why we are spending so much on so many things which may be less than useful to us.

The images of kilometres long queues of Russian tanks which were stalled and picked off on their way to Kyiv by Ukrainian troops and the odd villager should be a source of some unease among defence officials and politicians determined to spend big on tanks and other big boy toys.

But as far as Google indicates none of the journalists reporting on the proposed purchase nor any politicians raised doubts about whether it was a good idea or not.

There is not only doubt about tank procurement but also other Australian Army massive procurement plans such as those to replace the Army’s armoured personnel carriers and other armoured vehicles.

As former defence official, Michael Shoebridge, told the ABC (30 August 2022): “It’s very hard to see anywhere in South-East Asia, or the South Pacific or even the wider Indo-Pacific (going from India to mainland China and Korea) where the Australian military needs to structure itself to do large scale land battles. The places where the ADF must fight in our own near region – when I look at that I don’t see a requirement for the army to use its 75 Abrams tanks, its 200 combat reconnaissance vehicles, its 1,000 bushmasters and its 1,000 Hawkeis and 450 infantry fighting vehicles.”

We are not alone in this waste and muddle. The British Ministry of Defence is planning to spend billions on a new Ajax armoured vehicle. So far the bill is 3.2 billion pounds over 12 years and further billions are planned.

But there’s a catch with the vehicles as disclosed to the House of Commons public accounts committee. The top MoD civil servant, David Williams, told the committee the vehicles were fine on a nice smooth surface but they weren’t yet being tried on bumpy ground because drivers might not be able to hear what their commanders were telling them.

However, it was all going to be OK. Trials were suspended for a while last year because of cabin noise but the MoD civil servant told the committee: “I would expect us to be making spending commitments with money in-year in getting some after some of our stockpile assumptions.”

As one committee members asked Williams: could he please speak “in plain English.”

Nevertheless, tanks are believed by some to be effective in certain settings. US Colonel Mansour told The Economist (20 August 2022) that while Shia militants had destroyed six lightweight Stryker armoured vehicles in a battle in Sadr City in Baghdad with rocket propelled grenades the much bigger Abrams tanks were then sent in and – as the US did in Vietnam – saved the village by destroying it.

And, if that’s what we want our Abrams tanks for – another stint in the Middle East – then probably they might come in useful if any government is stupid enough to get involved there yet again.

Tanks are not the only cost overrun problems. Such overruns are endemic. Indeed, it is doubtful if any defence procurement – at least since the Army got its first 303s – has come in on budget. Defence firms seem never to be punished for overruns but are rather just given more money. The situation in the US is typical – with almost no defence procurement deals ever coming in on budget and massive cost over-runs the norm.

Indeed, it is striking the differences in the treatment of welfare recipients and defence suppliers.

Canada is a notable exception to all this. Faced with spiralling costs and diminishing performance they dumped their proposed purchase of the F35 flying lemon. Australia, in contrast, just shovelled more piles of cash to Lockheed Martin.  The Canadians decided whatever benefits inter-operability might offer they didn’t outweigh taxpayers’ interests.

The Canadians also devote more of their military spending to peacekeeping than Australia – let alone the US – does. We in contrast launched into the never-ending US wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and salivate at the opportunity to try it on with China as well.

So what can Australia do about it? Lots in any sane world but don’t bet on it happening soon.