Project Overlander – LAND 121 – seems to be suffering from a sort of curse which results in unexpected levels of complexity at almost every turn. Phase 4 to procure 1,300 Protected Mobility Vehicles – Light (PMV-L) might seem to be easy from a conceptual viewpoint but that has not proven to be the case. The Government is expected to make a decision within the next few weeks which will determine whether Australia will continue to participate in the US Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program or whether a local solution will be considered, or possibly both.
The Department of Defence responded to an inquiry about the background as to why Australia paid almost $40 million to have an involvement in JLTV:
“On 21 Jan 2009, Australian and US representatives signed into effect a Project Arrangement which allows Australia to participate in the Technology Development Phase of the US Joint Light Tactical Vehicle Program; one of the acquisition options being explored by Defence. The Technology Development Phase is scheduled to be completed in mid-2011 at the US Milestone “B” Decision. The Technology Development Phase will be followed by an Engineering and Manufacturing Development Phase which in turn will be followed by a Production and Deployment Phase. In September last year, Australia advised the US that, subject to satisfactory conditions, Australia may participate in the Engineering and Manufacturing Development Phase. Negotiations on Australian participation are yet to occur.”
However the January 2009 decision was followed by extremely vigorous lobbying from a number of local companies – especially Thales – that Australia had the ability to develop our own vehicle to meet Army’s requirements. Thales argued with considerable conviction that as the designer and builder of the successful Bushmaster protected vehicle it was more than capable of designing a 7 tonne PMV-L which would be much closer to Army’s requirements than whatever came out of JLTV.
Defence explains the result:
“On 26 Feb 2009, the Minister for Defence approved the conduct a Request for Proposal (RFP) to determine whether there is merit in Australian industry being offered the opportunity to provide a Manufactured and Supported in Australia PMV-L solution in conjunction with our involvement in the US Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program. A Request for Proposal package was released 12 Jun 09 with Responses being due 30 Sep 09. Evaluation by Government of these responses is ongoing.”
It is this decision that is now imminent. It is understood that 13 companies responded to the RFP. Thales for its part has continued to market its PMV-L known as the Hawkei. A prototype vehicle recently passéd the 10,000 km mark of on and off road driving and in addition the company has carried out blast testing on 5 body shells to verify blast resistance properties. In doing so it has been assisted by the Israeli company Plasan, a genuine world leader in vehicle protection solutions.
Defence has at times looked as if it is determined to go down the JLTV path no matter how viable it is to develop Australian vehicles using local expertise. Unusually for Australia the matter has become politicized and the following exchange took place at a recent hearing of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs & Defence involving the head of the Defence’s Capability Development Group:
Mr BALDWIN—The area of concern put to me by defence industry players in Australia is that, without any real consultation to Australian defence industry players, we went straight to the US and signed up and paid cash to a US development program.
Vice Adm. Tripovich—I would not support that line from them. We consulted with them through the Land Environment Working Group and direct approaches before first pass on the JLTV program to see if anyone had any plans—
Mr BALDWIN—Australian industry?
Vice Adm. Tripovich—Australian industry. And it was clear—I am characterising their expressions—that they had no plans to develop a vehicle along the lines of the JLTV because they saw at that stage the JLTV was a large program in America and it did not seem to them that it was likely to—if you would just let me finish—
Mr BALDWIN—When I was approached by Australian defence industry players that could have participated, they said that they were never approached.
Vice Adm. Tripovich—I would contend that that is not the case. The moment industry came to us and the gentleman from Thales came and saw me in my office—around the same time he came and saw government—as soon as we were aware, we spoke to the government at the time and said, ‘Industry has just come to see us. They have said that they might do something,’ and that was the start of what is now called the manufacturers supporting Australia, the parallel line.
Given that this is an election year and given that LAND 121 is still thrashing around without much credibility unable to decide which trucks to purchase under phase 3 of the programme, it would be an extremely courageous Minister indeed who decided to shut off the option of an Australian PMV-L