By Rafael Epstein
NEW fighting vehicles for Australia’s elite soldiers have been condemned as white elephants that are plagued by dodgy electronics and are too heavy for army helicopters. And they are still not used in Afghanistan, despite being bought more than two years ago for nearly $50 million.
Thirty-one Nary patrol vehicles were bought in August 2008 under the watch of the then defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon.
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The purchase was made without a tender for ”reasons of operational urgency”. But despite the rush to have them by the start of last year, none has been sent to Afghanistan and none has been earmarked for deployment.
The next-generation vehicles were bought for the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan as replacements for the ageing Land Rovers.
In November 2007 the British Ministry of Defence bought the same vehicles from the manufacturer Supacat and had them in Afghanistan within months.
Australia’s Defence Department has said the deployment of the first batch of Narys is on track and that some will be in use in the second half of next year.
But a defence industry source close to the project said: ”One would like to think that this is a capability that should have been [in Afghanistan] by now.”
Industry insiders have criticised army engineers and Defence’s procurement arm, the Defence Materiel Organisation, because they struggled to merge two ”off-the-shelf” purchases – the British vehicles and their US-designed electronics and communications systems.
One problem for the vehicles has been interference between transmissions from different pieces of equipment. One industry source said: ”If you have one system operating on a particular radio frequency, it might interfere with your satellite communications equipment, which is operating on different frequencies.”
It is understood these problems extended to secret systems used to stop eavesdroppers obtaining classified information.
Next year the government will ask manufacturers to bid to supply 50 new patrol vehicles. But it is understood that the tender has been delayed by a logjam of requests before the top-secret National Security Committee.
Manufacturers are so dismayed they are pushing the government to issue an extra tender, a separate contract to integrate the onboard electronics with the next batch of vehicles.
One source condemned the Defence Materiel Organisation, saying: ”What they love to do is interfere, and do this Australianisation of stuff.”
The department did not respond to questions about the delayed tender, and about whether there had been electrical problems. A statement from Defence says the Narys’ onboard systems are now ”functional and the electrical system provides adequate power”.
Many elite soldiers have completed their driver training on Narys but the vehicles still have not received their initial operational certificates because of what one source said was ”limited functionality” of the onboard electronics.
The vehicles’ computers are designed to show an array of information from remote bases and drone aircraft.
But army technicians have been unable to transmit information consistently.
To protect soldiers from improvised explosive devices, Defence has given the Narys nearly 1000 kilograms of extra armour. But at more than 10,000 kilograms, some of the vehicles exceed weight limits on the rear doors of the army’s ageing Chinook 47D transport helicopters, so cannot be driven into them.
The British Army relaxed the weight limit on its Chinooks so the vehicles could enter. The Australian Army can make do by suspending the large vehicles
beneath the helicopters, but this is considered more difficult and dangerous and uses more fuel.
Defence says there was no requirement to carry Narys inside cargo helicopters and they can be transported on cargo planes.
The Narys carry heavy-calibre machine guns and grenade launchers but are heavier
and have more complex technology than Land Rovers and Bushmasters, used for everything from reconnaissance to ”capture-or-kill” missions.
The vehicles’ new system promises to integrate satellite communications, video surveillance and radio communications with electronic warfare counter-measures designed to set off improvised roadside bombs before the vehicle is on top of the explosive charge.
A special forces source said not everyone would be unhappy with the delay in using the Narys.
”In some ways, command is happy not to deploy them because they cost too much. If you lose one of them it’s worth two or three Bushmasters.”