A DOG OF AN IDEA
This might appear to be just another story about a dog; in this case, the South Korean built K-9 howitzer. But you shouldn’t stop reading just because you’re not interested in the intricacies of procurement decisions that are likely to result in us ending up with a dud artillery piece. The tale of why we’re going to buy this gun is actually a piece about our supposedly Advanced Industrial Society and why things still, somehow, seem to keep going bung despite all our best efforts.
Firstly, lets examine the K-9 155 mm self-propelled howitzer itself. It’s made by a subsidiary of the Samsung group – that’s the same one that makes your mobile phones and TV’s. Modern Western financial management theory insists that conglomerates are inefficient. They are, supposedly, ripe for breaking up into their component parts. Samsung makes fools of the experts on a daily basis.
And that’s the first lesson. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Not everyone is playing by the same rules. It’s perfectly OK to specialise in our areas of comparative advantage – like digging things out of the ground. Nevertheless, other countries aren’t necessarily following similar doctrines and they seem to be doing quite OK. But that’s just one aspect of the way our policy settings have been hi-jacked by the new bureaucrats. The saga of the gun purchase offers other insights.
The K-9 is a big gun, mounted on tracks and enclosed in an armoured hull. Under development since 1989, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d want if you were facing a Soviet armoured division ploughing over the north German plain or, come to think of it, a North Korean assault surging across the border. The tech-heads out there might be interested to note that it can fire off three rounds in less than 15 seconds, adjusting its elevation very slightly each time. This means that all the shells arrive together on the target. It makes for a very big bang.
It’s a good gun and right for its cold war setting. It’s not really the designers fault if, the first and only time it was used in action, three of the six weapons involved couldn’t fire.
Two years ago North Korea began bombarding villages on Yeonpyeong Island. Twelve minutes later, the South began retaliating. Unfortunately, the wrong sort of anti-freeze had been used in the engines. Two of the vehicles seized up. Because their gun turret can’t traverse independently if something goes wrong with the engine it means, well, the whole thing’s useless. This also severely limits the howitzer’s effectiveness in the sort of counter-insurgency battle that we’re likely to be fighting, where the enemy might come suddenly from any direction. The third gun on Yeonpyeong jammed when a dud shell was placed in the breach.
Nevertheless, it’s looking increasingly as if this is the weapon Australia’s going to buy. And this decision – or rather, inertia – provides a good example of why things are going off the rails more generally.
The requirement for a tracked artillery piece was first identified in the 2009 Defence White Paper. This was quite specific, insisting we would buy “two batteries of self-propelled guns”. This made a lot of sense when we had a designated mechanised brigade. Since then, though, the army’s changed the force structure. It’s now decided all three brigades should be the same. Apparently, nobody thought to tell the Defence Material Organisation this, because it’s still happily proceeding with the original project to buy the howitzer even though it no longer makes sense. Land 17 Phase C is costed (in the Defence Capability Plan) at between $500 million and, yes, the exciting total of $1 billion. Not a bad range, that. It includes a fair bit of flexibility. In fact, you might almost think the numbers had been plucked out of the air.
And that’s lesson two. For all the faux-pretension of rigorous, sophisticated analysis, the reality is that these decisions come back to politics. Money can always be found for the group making the loudest noise.
That’s the only method of explaining why we’re buying this particular weapon. Because it’s not automated, the K-9’s gunners need exceptional upper-body strength. They’re like Morlocks: cave dwellers requiring super-human strength. This effectively rules out the possibility of females serving the weapon. More importantly, a great deal has changed since this weapon was developed. In Afghanistan, the Dutch managed to cope with just one howitzer (a German PzH 2000) providing very effective support and coverage to our troops in Orüzgan. Indeed there are rumours Malaysia’s going to buy the better German gun.
But we won’t. That’s because a coalition of disparate interests are amalgamating to enforce a compromise decision that doesn’t really satisfy anyone. Unfortunately, nobody’s standing back to view things from an overall perspective. Instead, the bureaucracy has ‘ownership’ of the process. This means that things have probably progressed too far for any proper reconsideration of the purchase. We’ll get the K-9’s tomorrow because the need for them was identified some time ago and it doesn’t matter that the situation’s changed.
As far as the DMO’s concerned, the price is right. Some officers have been working on the project for years and they’d prefer to have (even) a second-rate gun rather than none at all. They don’t have the ability to re-shape the tender process to ensure we get a better weapon because that’s anathema to the people who draft purchasing requirements. The Army wants a tracked howitzer – even if two batteries no longer make sense in the new order of battle. The Minister is wedged because of his public attacks on military culture and he doesn’t want to being on another barney with the services.
All this is why this is more than just a story about a gun. Different sectional interests have coalesced to push the purchasing decision in separate ways. The result is we’re about to buy something that many Artillery officers believe is a second-rate solution. It seems unlikely that anyone compiling a White Paper today would identify the need for this particular weapon. Particularly at a time when every government dollar is desperately needed and there are so many other vital priorities for money. But there you go. The money’s been allocated. It would be far more tedious to go back than keep travelling onward.