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Wednesday, 27 November 1985
Page: 2385

Senator MacGIBBON(5.30) —I should like to ask the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce (Senator Button) whether the decision made some months ago not to proceed with the armoured personnel carrier replacement, Project Waler, is irrevocable or, in the light of the considerable adverse comment that has been made about that decision, whether the Government is prepared to reconsider its decision. By way of explanation to the Minister, I point out that for the Army there are two essential qualities-mobility and firepower. Earlier today someone was talking about close air support for the Army and the fact that the Royal Australian Air Force was not able to provide it. With modern technology we are not able to deploy unsophisticated aircraft over a battlefield because of the ability to destroy such aircraft with relatively cheap weapons. The answer to that firepower question is to increase the artillery component of the Australian Army, which at present is very small. Project Waler relates to mobility. We simply cannot move troops onto the battlefield wearing only the shirts on their backs. They have to be protected against small arms fire; they have to be protected against shell fire. The Auditor-General's report that came out some months ago dealt with the M113A1 vehicles, the vehicles in question, which were to be replaced by the Project Waler vehicles. The Auditor-General reported:

This report, however, does raise serious questions about the effectiveness of the M113A1 vehicles to meet efficiently their operational and training objectives.

This vehicle has been in service with the Australian Army for 20 years. Its design is about 30 years old; it is the first generation of armoured personnel carriers. It will carry a section of troops and give them some protection against limited small arms fire. The design has developed very considerably in the last 30 years and we are now into the third generation of these vehicles around the world. Australia had about 800 at one stage and Project Waler would have sought to replace those with a more suitable vehicle for the years ahead. Not only would it have given us a great deal more protection for the troops but also it would have been the first instance of an armoured design and building capability in this country. Australia does not have any capability to build armoured vehicles such as tanks or personnel carriers, and that is something we ought to overcome. One of the great benefits of Project Waler would have been that it would have taken us the first step down the path to self-sufficiency.

The Auditor-General has reported that we have had one death because these vehicles have mechanical problems. In 1982 a soldier was killed as a result of a differential brake assembly failure, and the Auditor-General points out that the vehicles are hard to maintain and that there are supply difficulties, particularly with tracks.

Because of this the previous Government instituted Project Waler and phase one of that project was carried out, resulting in some preliminary design studies. This Government sat on phase one, and it was common knowledge in the industry that it was not going to proceed. Instead of having the courage of its convictions and saying 18 or 20 months ago that it would not proceed with Project Waler, it just sat on it, kept everyone on tenterhooks, and then declared that it would not go ahead. The Government has announced that it will spend money on upgrading the old APCs, but to do so is just throwing money away because, as I said before, the design of those vehicles is 30 years old. It is a first generation vehicle which has no defence at all against present threat munitions. Despite that, evidence was given to Estimates Committee E by various people. One of the deputy secretaries said that the vehicle was adequate up until the year 2000. I quote him:

The advice given to the Minister from the senior military and civilian advisers was that it would adequately meet the needs of our Defence Force to the year 2000, and that is still the situation today.

The witness was misleading the Parliament and the Senate when he gave that advice. At present the APC is not proof against anything but the lightest of small arms. A .5 calibre machine gun will go right through it and simple rocket projectiles such as the RPG7 will destroy it. When the Minister at the table and the public servant claimed that it would be adequate for the needs of the Australian Defence Force to the year 2000 it was very clear that their little pink bodies would not be inside it in any sort of hostile situation.

The spending of money on these carriers is just a waste of public funds. Furthermore, the evidence given misled the Committee on a second point. The view was expressed that the United States Army, and in another place the German Army, were going to upgrade their M113s. The implication was that these vehicles were being upgraded for first line use, but in fact the United States and German armies are upgrading only a small number of them, and they are for rear echelon service, not front line service. I come back to this point: If we have to use these vehicles in a war situation we are giving no protection at all to our troops, bearing in mind the threat munitions that exist at present. These are simple, cheap munitions that are readily available. Those vehicles will be knocked out and the lives of the soldiers in them will be thrown away. The money we spend on these vehicles will be money wasted. The Government has not come up with the details of precisely what it is going to do, but it is clearly intended that none of the upgrading kits will be manufactured in Australia; they will just be brought in from overseas, from the United States, and fitted in the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers workshops. So there is no benefit to Australian industry from this. I ask the Minister whether there is any light at the end of the tunnel. Is the Government prepared to reconsider its decision to cancel Project Waler?