Is Australia set to begin manufacturing tanks?

While all the media attention has been on future frigates and the 72 F-35 stealth fighters, it seems an older yet just as important defence technology is gaining currency for potential local manufacture. 

According to a report today in the AFR, the Australian Army’s main battle tank (MBT) the M1 Abrams – a 62-tonne behemoth that carries four people and a 120mm main gun is Australian Army’s first major MBT purchase since buying its German-made Leopard tanks in 1960s.

Colonel Anthony Duus, the Australian Army’s Director of Armoured Fighting Vehicles Systems noted in the AFR story that we may have one of the best tanks in the world, but we have too few and we do not have the domestic sustainment capacity for the M1 Abrams in the way that the RAAF and RAN sustains its fleets. 

Duus said the upgrade options include shipping the M1 tanks to the US tank production lines in either Ohio or Michigan, or building a local production line in Australia and using the facility as a sustainment hub for the subsequent 20-year life of the M1 fleet, much like what is done with our submarines and frigates. 

“With vehicles like the M1, which you operate for decades, the sustainment cost far outweighs the procurement cost. We favour the option of having the production line in Australia.”

“We’d like to have all the sustainment for the M1 in Australia. In terms of levels of readiness, that is the best option,” said Duus.

However, Australia’s history of tank manufacture has not exactly been prolific. During World War II, Australia the locally-made Sentinel was the only tank to be produced in Australia. The few Sentinels that were built never saw action as Australia was by then equipped with British and US tanks.

The only other ‘manufacturing’ of tanks or tank-like equipment was a number of armour upgrades and engine overhauls to the Army’s M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) throughout the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s.

Duus says General Dynamics and the US government are both “open to the idea of an Australian production line” but no decisions have been made.