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Are we Ready to Fight the Next War?

5/7RAR28AUG03NR01 DATE 28 AUG 03 Photo by LCPL Neil Ruskin A Leopard Tank from the 1st Armoured Regiment ploughs through the dust of Shoalwater Bay Training Area to take part in an armoured battle group assault during Exercise Predators Gallop 2003.

The Australian Army Research Centre is interested in the ‘Transformation of Land Power’ as a topic that encompasses a range of domestic and global tasks for Army. This article reflects on how transformative the Australian Army’s modern application of land power is, when viewed against the lessons of one of our deployments to the Middle East. I recently became aware of Dr Albert Palazzo’s book, which provided an analysis of the Australian Army’s role in the 2003 Iraq War. The book was eventually titled, The Australian Army and the War in Iraq 2002-2010 and initially classified Secret Australian Eyes Only. It is still extensively redacted.

There are many lessons for the Australian Army from the war in Iraq that have not been redacted. Palazzo suggests that the truly significant lessons of Australia’s participation in the Coalition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq lay at the policy level, not at the war’s sharp end.[1] He also identified too much control at the strategic level; however, a critique of the deficiency of Australian strategy is a topic addressed by others. Instead, I wanted to focus on the readiness of three of the Army’s force packages that were reviewed by planners at the time: the Armoured Battle Group, Ground Based Air Defence and the Reconnaissance Battle Group.

This article will review the readiness deficiencies of these three force options that were considered for deployment in 2002, examine how the Australian Army has addressed the deficiencies in their capability over the intervening 20 years, and consider whether the Australian Army is now ready to fight that earlier campaign. Armies are often accused of always fighting the last war and this article will conclude by offering some insights on how ready the Australian Army is for a similar war.

The Lessons from the War in Iraq 2002-2010 for the Australian Army

In 2002, there were a lot Army force packages to choose from:[2]

  • Reconnaissance battlegroup
  • Armoured battlegroup
  • Light infantry battalion group
  • Surveillance Target Acquisition battery or a Surveillance troop
  • Medium battery
  • Engineer support squadron or Engineer troop group
  • Medium lift [CH47] helicopter detachment
  • S70A [Blackhawk] detachment
  • Intelligence augmentation team or an Intelligence support element
  • Electronic warfare troop
  • Air Defence Battery
  • SAS squadron group or a Commando squadron group.
  • Force support battalion

I chose to focus on the readiness of the Armoured Battle Group, Ground Based Air Defence and the Reconnaissance Battle Group force packages as these capabilities are all part of the Army’s unprecedented modernisation. The first force package I will look at is the Armoured Battle Group.

Army’s Readiness – The Armoured Battle Group

In 2002, the core platform in the Armoured Battle Group was the Leopard I Tank. This tank faced serious obsolescence issues. While it lacked Thermal Sights, it did have a basic active emission night fighting capability. The armour had not kept pace with advances in gun and ammunition technology. Consequently, it was vulnerable to a range of anti-armour weapons, including from Iraqi T-72 tanks. To provide its tank crews with a higher degree of force protection, the Army would have had to purchase, under the Rapid Acquisition Program, bolt-on armour from the vehicle’s manufacturer. However, with information on force options heavily compartmented for security reasons, planners at Army Headquarters never considered the option of approaching industry.

There were also serious support issues. There were not sufficient stocks of training ammunition in Australia for the 105mm gun (war stock ammunition was sufficient). While Germany produced the ammunition and that country opposed the war, a Former Director of the Armoured Fighting Vehicle Program, highlighted during a verbal interview on 22 November 2022 that the Australian Army used a range of manufacturers, including those in UK and US as the gun used standard NATO 105mm ammunition. The ammunition could have been obtained. Finally, the US Army and US Marine Corps (USMC) did not field the Leopard Tank. Instead, Australia would have had to provide a robust support capability of its own for their maintenance and sustainment. The government of the day, through the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF), had provided a manpower cap of 600 personnel and ultimately the deployment of a larger support contingent to the Middle East Area of Operations would have violated the objective of manpower minimisation. The Armoured Battle Group force package was discounted and the next force option considered was ground based air defence.

Army’s Readiness for War - Ground Based Air Defence

Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) is required when the adversary has a capable air and missile force. In the 1991 Gulf War, the main threat was from the Scud series of missiles. In 2003, there were also Chinese produced Silkworm missiles that were used to attack military and civilian targets. The issues that Army Headquarters planners faced with the Australian Army’s GBAD Systems were similar to those affecting the Armoured Battle Group. The Rapier system, originally introduced into service in 1980, was obsolete as it was incompatible with other coalition air defence systems. The coalition aircraft had upgraded their identification friend or foe (IFF) systems to Mode 4. This system works as an encrypted automatic challenge/response and ensures that systems equipped with IFF do not engage each other. Without Mode 4 IFF on the Rapier system, there was potential for fratricide (an issue that later occurred with the US Army Patriot system). A worrying trend shared with the Armoured Battle Group was the lack of sufficient reserves of ammunition.

The second GBAD System, RBS 70, was committed to providing short range defence of HMAS Kanimbla and it also suffered from ammunition shortages. The air defence force package had exposed the fact that Rapier was already obsolete and that RBS 70 was required to provide defence of the Royal Australian Navy. The air defence package was used, but not in support of land power. The next force option I will review is the Reconnaissance Battle Group.

Army’s Readiness for War - Reconnaissance Battle Group

The Reconnaissance Battle Group was the force option that Army Headquarters’ planners examined in the greatest depth, as it was one of the ADF assets that US Central Command planners consistently expressed a keen interest in. The US planners had identified a capability gap in their force structure, which was the security of the western flank of the 1st Marine Division during its drive on Baghdad. In response, the US looked to the Australian Army to remedy the problem. This was an ideal task for light cavalry, and ‘AHQ pushed for the deployment of an Australian Light Armoured Vehicle (ASLAV) based contingent’.[3]

There were similar obsolescence issues with the ASLAV, which plagued all of Army’s force options. If it was to provide any useful degree of protection to their crews, the ASLAV required an upgrade to its very thin armour. The pre-2004 ASLAV’s armour provided protection against the 7.62 ball round. However, all light anti-armour weapons were capable of penetrating its armour. Critically, the vehicles also lacked Spall Liners, which prevents armour piercing ballistic projectiles and any metal 'spall' fragments from explosive impacts, penetrating into the vehicle's interior and injuring anyone inside. Land 112 Phase 4 was intended to address these deficiencies, but at that time the upgrade had not yet begun’.[4] As the USMC order of battle contained similar vehicles, initially it was assumed that the ADF could deploy a smaller logistic footprint.

Ultimately it was the size of the contingent that made it undeployable; it was originally proposed to deploy 2,000 personnel. As with the Armoured Battle Group, an establishment limited to 600 personnel was politically viable. Unfortunately, a force of this size would not have been large enough to balance force security requirements with mission objectives.[5] So, while there were similar problems for all force options, ultimately it was the size of the force that made it unpalatable for the CDF to take to Government. I will now analyse how the Australian Army has addressed the problems with these three force packages in the intervening 20 years.

Addressing the Force Options’ Deficiencies

While two of the three force options above were discounted because of the size of the contingents, the planning process had exposed problems with readiness for all three force options. In Palazzo’s words, ‘the reality was that in mid-2002 little of the Australian Army’s order of battle was readily deployable for a war with Iraq’.[6] In addition, fleet managers did not appreciate the cost in securing critical items to upgrade their capabilities. The lack of responsiveness from manufactures in the national support base was a considerable concern to the Australian Defence Force.[7] One of the reoccurring themes of the force option selection process was the discovery by planners that the ADF maintained ammunition stocks at such low levels that it made the deployment of certain capabilities virtually impossible without the immediate purchase of additional supplies. So, how has the ADF addressed these deficiencies?

Addressing the Force Options’ Deficiencies – The Armoured Battle Group

The Armoured Battle Group deficiencies were addressed surprisingly quickly. According to the detailed Australian National Audit Office Audit Report No.1 2007–08, by 2007 Project Land 907 had delivered 59 M1A1 ABRAMS Main Battle Tanks, associated support vehicles, training equipment and a logistic package of support equipment, spare parts, ammunition, facilities and initial training. The budget was considered by Government in October 2003, approved for entry to the Defence Capability Plan in 2004 and the first batch of tanks and recovery vehicles arrived in Australia September 2006.

While this capability is now over fifteen years old, it has not become obsolete like its predecessor. In late April 2021, the US State Department approved the sale to Australia of 160 M1A1 tank hulls from stock. Those frames will be used to produce the ADF's next tank fleet including around 75 M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams main battle tanks. This acquisition represents a major upgrade to Australia's heavy armour capability. It is being managed under Land 907 Phase 2 (the tank upgrade) and Land 8160 Phase 1 (the combat engineering vehicles). The first vehicles from the new Australia-US contract will be delivered in 2024 and are expected to enter service in 2025.

Ammunition, could still be a problem. A deliberate decision was made to reduce the amount of training ammunition purchased and to procure six Advanced Gunnery Training System Simulators to reduce the amount of live ammunition required to train for, and maintain, gunnery skills. A footnote in the Audit Report also highlighted that training and war stock ammunition had been purchased and deemed suitable for service by the Ordnance Safety Group, noting the cost limitations and reliance on external (presumably overseas) agencies. This issue of reliance on overseas ammunition manufacturers has been partially addressed by Australian-owned weapons and munitions company NIOA recapitalising the 120mm tank ammunition. This recapitalisation work extends the life of type of M1028 canister tank ammunition, but there does not appear to be an intent to future manufacture of additional tank ammunition natures at Benalla. The next capability to examine is the GBAD Capability.

Addressing the Force Options’ Deficiencies – Ground Based Air Defence

It took a little longer for the Australian Army to address the obsolescence issues associated with the GBAD capability, but it was not alone in neglecting its air defence capability during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Australian Army project to replace the RBS-70 was Land 19 Phase 7B. The Land 19 Phase 7B solution is capable of either independent operations or to integrate with the Project AIR 6500 Joint Air Battle Management System. Land 19 Phase 7B achieved First Pass Government approval in February 2017 and the selected system is the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS), enhanced with Canberra-based CEA Technologies' Active Scanning Electronic Array (AESA) radars. This includes the latest Mode 5 IFF. The project had a planned Initial Operational Capability of FY2022-23 as of July 2019.

This is a transformational capability. NASAMS can engage targets beyond line of sight, take targeting data from the joint force and the CEA radars are world leading. A benefit of this capability is that it shares a missile type with air forces such as the Royal Australian Air Force. The Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) is manufactured by Raytheon Australia, which is also a strategic partner for the Sovereign Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance Enterprise. It has taken almost exactly 20 years, but the Australian Army is poised to address the deficiencies with its GBAD capability, including the crucial issue of ammunition. Finally, the modern Reconnaissance Battle Group warrants examination.

Addressing the Force Options’ Deficiencies – Combat Reconnaissance Vehicles

According to another detailed Australian National Audit Office Audit Report No. 18 of 2020–21, the new combat reconnaissance vehicles (CRVs) for the Reconnaissance Battle Group were procured under Land 400 Phase 2 at second pass in 2018. Initial Operating Capability was scheduled for December 2022 and Final Operating Capability was scheduled for June 2027. Ultimately, Rheinmetall Defence Australia will produce 211 Boxer CRVs.

The manufacture and assembly of the Boxer CRVs will progressively transfer from Germany to Australia, with the first 25 Block I CRVs manufactured and assembled in Germany. The final 186 Block II vehicles’ manufacture and assembly will occur in a purpose-built facility known as the Military Vehicle Centre of Excellence in Queensland. The Australian workforce involved in the construction of the vehicles will also be used to support sustainment, progressive development and upgrades to the Boxer. The same workforce will be used to support potential export opportunities. The ANAO Report highlighted that there have been challenges with the project. Specifically, there are potential schedule delays due to modification of the turrets and protection requirements; a situation reported by the ABC in 2021.

So, with all of this new equipment are we ready to fight the last war?

Conclusion - Are we Ready to Fight the War in Iraq?

It has taken at least 20 years, but the Australian Army should be rightfully proud of its efforts to modernise its Armoured Battle Group, GBAD and CRV capabilities. All three are at the leading edge of military technology. Further, with the CRV (and to a degree with NASAMS), there is a sovereign manufacturing and support system. The Australian Army has addressed the readiness issues associated with all three capabilities and clearly it could now fight the last war.

The key insights I reflected upon while reading Albert Palazzo’s book as a military professional was how long it can take from when a deficiency is identified to addressing it through the force modernisation process. The capability we have today is the capability we will take to conflict over the next 20 years. Incremental modernisation of these platforms is important to keep them relevant on the contemporary battlefield. Equally, a sovereign sustainment system is important to ensure they are ready to fight tonight. As we examine the early lessons from the Ukraine conflict, a potential deficiency is Australia’s capacity to ensure that all platforms are able to counter small unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS).  The Australian Army has stated that it continues to evaluate solutions to C-UAS and might retrofit a capability at a future date.

Finally, while each of these capabilities has been examined individually, an Army is reliant on these platforms coming together as a combined arms system. Combined arms win battles, but achieving that synergy is practically difficult to achieve. It requires hard training. As the then Lieutenant Colonel Noble observed in 2004 stated, ‘the combination of armour, infantry, artillery, and engineers is designed to ensure that in combat the whole of the military machine is greater than the sum of its parts.’ As well as keeping a close eye on the emerging character of war to ensure our individual capabilities do not become obsolete, we must ensure that the Australian Army is capable of conducting formation-level combined arms warfare against a competent opponent.


[1] Albert Palazzo, The Australian Army and the War in Iraq 2002-2010, Directorate of Army Research & Analysis, (2011), 7

[2] Palazzo, The Australian Army and the War in Iraq, 134

[3] Palazzo, The Australian Army and the War in Iraq, 149

[4] Palazzo, The Australian Army and the War in Iraq, 155

[5] Palazzo, The Australian Army and the War in Iraq, 152

[6] Palazzo, The Australian Army and the War in Iraq, 172

[7] Palazzo, The Australian Army and the War in Iraq, 271

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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