When Australian Army soldiers go to war late next decade, they’ll head into battle aboard a state-of-the-art infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), protected against most weapons they’ll encounter, armed to defeat most threats, and fully networked to other vehicles, the battle management system and unmanned aircraft overhead.
The Project LAND 400 Phase 3 effort to find this paragon of a vehicle is now getting underway.
It will proceed much like the hard-fought LAND 400 Phase 2 contest which saw the Rheinmetall Boxer selected in May over the BAE Systems AMV35 for Army’s new Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV), a replacement for the long-serving ASLAV.
The new IFV will replace longer-serving M113 armoured personnel carriers, a versatile and reliable vehicle which carried diggers into battle in Vietnam. Despite a substantial $1 billion upgrade last decade, the M113AS4’s slab aluminium sides made an inviting target for enemy rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and its flat underside is exceedingly vulnerable to landmines and IEDs.
The 2016 Defence Integrated Investment Plan (IIP) says the current M113AS4 fleet will be replaced from around 2024. “These vehicles will be equipped with superior firepower, networking and protection, and will be deployable rapidly by air in small numbers and in larger numbers by Canberra-class amphibious ships and logistic support vessels.”
The IIP cites an acquisition timeline of 2019-32 and a cost of $10-15 billion. This will mirror the acquisition process pioneered with the LAND 400 Phase 2 acquisition of the Boxer CRV.
The long-awaited request for tender (RFT) is expected to be released at or around September’s Land Forces Conference in Adelaide, and industry and one-on-one briefings will be conducted at the conference and associated exposition.
Tenders will close in first quarter of 2019, after which six months of initial evaluations are expected to result in an announcement of a shortlist of two. The chosen pair will then sign a Risk Mitigation Activity (RMA) contract.
The RMA is scheduled to start in third quarter 2020, with each contender supplying three vehicles for up to 15 months of trials to assess performance, lethality, survivability, and integration with the Australian environment. Unlike Phase 2, trials will commence with mine blast testing to assess occupant survivability.
The government will announce the winner some time in 2022. Initial operating capability (IOC) will be achieved in 2024-25, and final operating capability (FOC) in 2030-31.
Defence says it wants a total of 467 vehicles – 312 in IFV configuration, and the remainder in a mix of eight other variants, including command, joint fires, combat engineers, ambulances, and manoeuvre support vehicles.
If the CRV deal is anything to go by, that number won’t be immutable. Throughout the Phase 2 contest, the government said it wanted 225 vehicles, but the final decision was for 211.
The M113 has served Australia well. By the time the last retires from service next decade they will have notched up around 60 years of service, a record for Australian armoured vehicle longevity unlikely to be broken. With some 80,000 produced, the M113 remains the most prolific western armoured vehicle. Many remain in service around the world, a few even with US police departments as SWAT vehicles.
The Royal Australian Armoured Corps took delivery of the first of more than 700 M113A1 vehicles in March 1965, and they subsequently served in Vietnam, Somalia, Rwanda, and East Timor.
Starting in the early 1990s, the fleet was progressively improved, with the major upgrade project launched in 2002. These vehicles were designated M113AS4, with a lengthened hull on a fifth axle, a new turret, upgraded engines and transmissions, and better armour.
In all 431 vehicles were upgraded at a cost of about $1 billion. The AS4 is arguably the best M113 variant on the planet, but underneath remains the original M113 hull with all its vulnerability to RPGs, mines and IEDs.
The basic design well precedes weapons likely to be encountered in future conflicts – better anti-armour weapons, roadside bombs, airborne bomblets and explosively formed penetrators (EFP).
EFP were encountered in growing numbers in Iraq towards the end of the conflict, many supplied by Iran to Shia militia groups for use against coalition forces including Australia. Properly constructed and employed, an EFP can penetrate the hull of an Abrams tank. An EFP slug would go in one side of a M113 and out the other without slowing down too much.
The M113’s vulnerability to modern weapons has been repeatedly demonstrated. For example, in 2014 a Hamas RPG-29 struck an Israeli M113, killing seven Israeli soldiers.
In an industry brief in September 2016, Defence spelled out its basic requirements for the new IFV – a tracked vehicle with a turret, the capacity to carry eight soldiers, high level of protection and mobility, and mature technology with a robust growth path. At that stage there were seven potential contenders, all indicating their willingness to build wholly or mostly in Australia.
Rheinmetall Defence Australia, a subsidiary of German firm Rheinmetall AG is a front-runner with its new Lynx KF41, partly because it already has substantial runs on the board.
In 2013, Rheinmetall was chosen to supply around 2,500 Rheinmetall MAN medium and large trucks to replace the army’s elderly Mack and Unimog truck fleets. While these vehicles will all come from existing European production lines, Australian industry isn’t missing out, building large numbers of specialised trailers and modules.
Then in late July 2018, the government announced it would buy a further 1044 trucks plus 872 modules and 812 trailers, worth $1.4 billion.
The trucks will come from Rheinmetall’s production line in Austria. Modules and trailers will come from Australian and New Zealand companies; Haulmark in Brisbane, Varley in Newcastle, Holmwood Highgate in Brisbane, ECLIPS in Canberra, and TRT in Auckland and Brisbane.
For LAND 400 Phase 2, the first 25 Rheinmetall Boxers will be constructed in Germany, with the remainder to be built at a new factory at Redbank, near Ipswich in Queensland. Rheinmetall says this is where Lynx will be built should it win Phase 3.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Marcus Hellyer noted that the decision to build the CRV in Australia had created a potential future valley-of-death problem for the CRV workforce once that small production run ends.
“Enter, stage left, the next phase of LAND 400: infantry fighting vehicles with a price tag of $10-15 billion all up,” he wrote on ASPI’s The Strategist blog in late July. “But there may not be much point in auditioning for that role if you’re not Rheinmetall.”
The ‘valley of death’ originally referred to the period of years between the end of construction of Hobart class air warfare destroyers (AWD) and Canberra class landing helicopter dock (LHD) vessels, and the start of the new SEA 1180 OPV and SEA 5000 frigate projects, during which companies had no choice but to lay off a large number of skilled workers.
This possibility is politically potent – no federal government lightly antagonises voters by presiding over mass job losses, avoidable through fresh contracts for construction of new defence equipment, whether it be ships or armoured vehicles.
“If the shipbuilding valley of death is any precedent, the government will fill it with more armoured vehicles rather than see layoffs when the work runs out,” Dr Hellyer wrote.
An IFV exists to transport a group of soldiers, typically an infantry section or smaller, across the final 300 metres of the battlefield, protecting against artillery and gunfire, and armed with offensive and self-defence weapons.
Rheinmetall’s Lynx KF41 is the most modern of the IFV designs in a small field to be considered under LAND 400 Phase 3. It was officially unveiled at Eurosatory in Paris in June, with Rheinmetall personnel demonstrating how it could be reconfigured from IFV to Command variant in eight hours, then back again.
The KF41 is a big vehicle – 34 tonnes in basic configuration, rising to 48 tonnes for the configuration with the main armament and highest level of protection. In comparison, the Australian M113AS4 weighs up to 18 tonnes while the US Bradley weighs up to 31 tonnes.
Though Rheinmetall has a long history of IFV design – its Marder, introduced in 1971 is regarded as the world’s first true IFV – Lynx is an all-new design, drawing lessons from Marder, from its successor Puma, and from the recent evolution of conflict.
That evolution has moved from the Cold War and the prospect of conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in Europe, expeditionary wars with the US as sole superpower, the Middle East, and now the re-emerging prospect of peer-to-peer conflict.
Most current IFVs date from the Cold War. The US produced 7,000 Bradley vehicles with the first entering service in 1981. The UK’s Warrior entered service in 1988. The Puma, developed by Rheinmetall and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, entered service with the German Army in 2012.
Puma had been tipped as a potential contender for Australia’s IFV. However it’s expensive, around €12m (A$19m) each, and features an unmanned turret. The German Army is buying 350.
The Australian Army considered unmanned turrets for the Phase 2 CRV, and concluded they took up nearly as much space as a manned turret with not much difference in weight or size. For some of the missions on which CRV will be deployed such as peacekeeping in lower risk environments, it was concluded that it was still useful to have a human visible on top.
“That was our thinking with this one,” MAJGEN Gus McLachlan, the outgoing Commander of Army’s Forces Command told reporters at Puckapunyal in May. “That doesn’t mean that’s necessarily our thinking for the next one. We will evaluate exactly what the market is doing and what’s available.”
Lynx has much commonality with Boxer, including the Lance turret with 30mm Rheinmetall MK30-2/ABM gun. On Lynx, the turret is the Lance 2.0 which features two fold out mission pods which can each accommodate dual round launchers for the Israeli Rafael Spike LR2 anti-tank guided missile, UASs, loitering munitions, or an electronic attack package.
Like the original Lance, Lance 2.0 can be configured for both manned and unmanned operation.
“What is special about Lynx is that after a 30-year drought in mainstream IFV development, we have gone first,” Rheinmetall Defence Australia Managing Director, Gary Stewart told ADBR. “We put our money on the line three years ago and started developing a new IFV.
“We think our timing is right because Australia is going now. The US (Bradley replacement program) is going soon. Suddenly there is a demand to update those very old fleets.”
Lynx has a crew of three and can accommodate six dismounts with all their equipment, or up to nine dismounts in the long wheelbase version. Australia has specified a high level of protection whatever new vehicle is chosen. It should be able to withstand 30mm munitions, RPGs, a 10kg mine, and an unspecified capability against EFP.
That high level of protection requires a much heavier vehicle than past APCs and IFVs. The Boxer CRV, which was deemed to provide better occupant protection than AMV35, has a maximum mass of 38 tonnes, compared with 13 tonnes for the ASLAV it will replace.
Stewart says Lynx can be configured to meet the anticipated level of threat. “If you have the need and you are in cities like Baghdad and people are going to shoot at you at very short range with no warning and a wide range of threats, you might need to dress yourself up to 48 tonnes,” he said.
“If you are in East Timor, you can pull the turret out, turn it into an APC, put on rubber band tracks, pull off the applique armour and mine shield, and get it down to about 33 tonnes.
“As a supplier, we need to provide a vehicle that can be adapted,” Stewart added. “That’s one of the principle characteristics of Lynx. This can be changed into all variants. It has a common drive module and then mission kits.”
Though Lynx is new, Stewart says the vehicle will be mature by the time it enters service. “We have proposed to the government that if we win Phase 3, we will make Australia the global home of Lynx.
“The global home means this is where the expertise will reside,” he added. “There are Australian suppliers already involved. There are Australian engineers involved. The chief engineer for the project is an Australian.”
But in a final contest between two evenly-matched contenders, what might count against Rheinmetall is the Commonwealth taking the view that it already has enough work for one prime contractor.
There are other possibilities. The Commonwealth might prefer CRV’s Lance turret on a different IFV chassis. That is actually becoming common practice in the AFV business, with customers routinely specifying they want one particular type of turret on a different manufacturer’s hull.
For LAND 400 Phase 3, Korean manufacturer Hanwha specified they would fit whatever turret was chosen on the Phase 2 winner. If they win, that could mean the Lance turret, rather than their own turret with a 40mm gun system.
And since Rheinmetall will already have a factory established, that facility could also end up making someone else’s IFV.
So who are the other contenders?
Hanwha, Korea’s largest defence company, is pitching its K21 IFV for LAND 400 Phase 3, as well as its K9 Thunder self-propelled (SP) guns, although there is currently no specific Australian requirement for a protected gun system.
K21 – to be called the AS21 for Australia – is a tracked vehicle weighing in at 26 tonnes, the lighter end of the IFV spectrum. It has a three-person crew and capacity for eight soldiers.
Considering the geography of the Korean Peninsula, K21 is also designed to be amphibious. The Republic of Korea armed forces’ primary purpose is to defeat an attack from the North. Where once the ROK mostly used US AFVs, their latest generation armoured vehicles are indigenous, designed specifically for fighting the North Koreans in the mountainous regions of the peninsula.
They feature high levels of armoured protection, formidable firepower, amphibious capability and high power-to-weight ratios. The K2 MBT and K21 IFV plus K9 are regarded as among the best of their type in the world. K21 was actually designed by the ROK to overmatch their prime competitor, the Russian-designed BMP-3, of which North Korea possesses huge numbers.
Should Hanwha win Phase 3 it plans to manufacture locally. This would not only create an indigenous capability, but also a strategic industrial reserve for Korea as a source of replacement vehicles in the event of devastating conflict which could potentially destroy much of the country’s industry.
Hanwha’s renewed bid to sell K9 to Australia represents a second bite at the now defunct Project LAND 17 Phase 2 in which the Army sought a modern self-propelled gun system. That project pitted the K9 – christened the Australian Thunder – against Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) and BAE Systems Australia with the German PzH 2000.
There followed a protracted evaluation which ended in May 2012 with the cancellation of that phase of the project, with the government instead opting for additional M777 towed howitzers.
Then Labor Defence Minister Stephen Smith explained this about-face saved $250 million. Media reports at the time suggested Defence had its heart set on the German gun despite its own evaluation showing the Korean one was the better option. All this left a sense that the Koreans had been treated pretty shabbily.
K9 has come a long way since 2012. Back then it was marked down for being an orphan system, but it has since been adopted by South Korea, Norway, Poland, Turkey, Finland, India, Estonia and possibly Egypt.
Any argument that Australia needs modern IFVs with higher levels of protection for their occupants can certainly be applied to artillery systems. Should the Korean IFV be selected for Phase 3, this would be the first time Australia has opted for an Asian-developed weapons system.
The Swedish CV90 (Combat Vehicle 90) also ticks many of the Phase 3 boxes. This is a family of armoured vehicles in current production, with 1,200 vehicles in service in seven countries – Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland.
The CV90 vehicle has seen operational service on both NATO and United Nations missions. It is designed by Swedish firm Hägglunds which is owned by BAE Systems, and BAE Systems Australia last year indicated a variant of CV90 could be their contender for Phase 3.
That was during the assessment of Phase 2, before their AMV35 lost out to the Rheinmetall Boxer. The company said the CV90 was a low-risk, military off-the-shelf offering that was ready for Phase 3.
“Combined with the E35 turret, the CV9035 – a variant of the vehicle with a 35mm gun system – provides superior lethality with a high level of commonality with the AMV35 offered for Phase 2,” BAE Systems Australia said in a media statement at the time. “With proven operations around the globe, CV90 will bring the Commonwealth a mature, low total-ownership cost, sustainment program.”
CV90 production began in 1993, making this a mature capability. In Swedish service, the IFV variant can accommodate eight dismounts and features a Bofors turret with a 40mm gun. Export versions feature Hägglunds turrets with either 30mm or 35mm Bushmaster cannons.
A spokeswoman for BAE Systems Australia told ADBR that it looked forward to the Commonwealth releasing the Mounted Close Combat Capability requirements. “As always, we look to support the Commonwealth to protect and enable our military forces where we can offer value for money, high performance system solutions that meet their needs,” she said.
Another possible contender is a variant of the new General Dynamics UK Ajax series of armoured vehicles, now entering service with the British Army. The most numerous is the Ajax reconnaissance and strike version, comparable to the Boxer CRV, while the Protected Mobility Recce Support (PMRS) variant has room for four dismounts. An IFV version is reported to be under development.
Again during the early Phase 2 considerations, General Dynamics Land Systems Australia offered Ajax with a Kongsberg unmanned turret as a contender for Phase 3.
Ajax was developed from the ASCOD (Austrian Spanish Cooperative Development) program, with ASCOD IFV in service with both Spain (as Pizarro) and Austria (as Ulan). These vehicles feature a crew of three and eight dismounts and weigh in at 28 tonnes.