The Australian military is a very busy organization all over the world. A thousand troops in Iraq; another thousand in Timor; several hundred in Afghanistan … not to mention Pacific piracy patrols. All for a force numbering less than 100,000 including reserves.
These operations run the gamut: the Timor force faces unruly youths in the city and ragtag rebels deep in the jungle; in Iraq, the Aussies maintain an armored Quick Reaction Force that might be called upon to reinforce the Iraqi Army in the barren south of the country; Aussie special forces are active in mountainous Afghanistan, where the fighting is as intense as it’s ever been. With such a wide range of commitments, what kinds of weapons do you buy?
That’s a question that the Australian government has long struggled with. And it has come up with a fairly elegant answer: a mix of cheap and rugged ground systems for places like Timor and Iraq, plenty of airlift for those tough-to-reach jungle and mountainous areas plus a small number of high-tech ships and airplanes for deterrence and to provide focused support to the deployed forces.
In Timor, the Aussies ride in trucks and M-113s – those Vietnam War-era steel boxes that the U.S. Army has largely replaced with expensive M-2 Bradley fighting vehicles. The M-113s aren’t much to look at, but they’ll keep away the rocks and arrows and they’re just the right size to intimidate the bad guys without pissing off the entire populace. Plus they’re light, as far as armored vehicles go, so they won’t collapse bridges and destroy roads and they’re easy to redeploy when the time comes.
For air support the Timor force relies in part on a troop of Bell Kiowas, another Vietnam-era design that the U.S. is rapidly replacing with heavier, more lethal systems. But you don’t need an Apache gunship – or even one of Australia’s new Tiger choppers – to spot rioters or snoop for lightly armed rebels in the jungle. Besides, gunships are too loud, too obtrusive, and most of them don’t like the heat. Plus you can fix the Kiowa with a stepladder and a toolbox; you don’t need cranes, computers and a dozen specialists working around the clock.
In coming years the Aussies are buying a wide range of big-ticket items: new destroyers and amphibious ships, Tiger helicopters, Super Hornet fighter jets, M-1A1 tanks and probably Global Hawk drones. But they’ll keep large numbers of the old, reliable stuff, too. Because it’s bought and paid for, cheap to maintain, cheap to upgrade. Because it works. And because, for many of the places where the Australian military goes to work, the old gear is actually better.