Malcolm Turnbull has unveiled an “ambitious, positive plan” to make Australia one of the world’s largest weapons exporters.
Unveiling the new “defence export strategy” on Monday, the prime minister said Australia would raise its profile in the international arms trading game by helping private firms sell weapons in “priority markets” such as the Middle East.
Military budgets are increasing around the world, but potential buyers may have one eye on Australia’s not entirely seamless defence procurement record.
Here are a few of the cautionary tales in Australia’s recent history of defence spending.
The US Seasprite naval helicopter was first flown in the 1950s and saw action in Vietnam. By the early 1990s the US had started to phase them out and even gave some away to countries such as Greece, Turkey and Thailand.
But that didn’t stop the Howard government signing a $746m contract to buy 11 of them in 1997. The project, which ended up costing closer to $1.4bn by the time it was scrapped by the Rudd government in 2008, involved transforming the antique helicopters into modern military hardware.
It didn’t really work.
In 2009, a report by the Australian National Audit Office found the Seasprite had a potential failure rate 20,000 times greater than the US aviation standard, and had a bad habit of making potentially “catastrophic” flight movements known has “hard overs”.
The worst bit? The helicopters were originally bought because a new type of offshore patrol vessel being built in partnership with Malaysia would have been too small for Australia’s existing fleet of helicopters to land on.
But four months after the government signed its contract with the US to buy the Seasprites, Malaysia pulled out and the boats were never built.
Long before Australia was being warned about spending far too much on 12 French submarines, in the 1980s the Australian government made the bold decision to go it alone and develop and build its own fleet.
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It was hoped the Collins class of submarines would be an example of ambitious, nation-defining ingenuity in the spirt of the Snowy Mountain scheme.
But instead the history of the Collins class became one of design flaws (including, infamously, that they were too noisy), maintenance problems, budget blowouts and missed deadlines.
A 2012 report found the subs were at sea for barely half the time of those in comparable countries, because of their maintenance requirements.
“In terms of the maintenance of the submarines, I think it’s not too harsh to say that we spent more than a decade mismanaging a multibillion-dollar class of critical defence assets,” Mark Thomson, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the ABC in 2016.
In 2017, Defence revealed that trials of a landing craft designed to carry vehicles including tanks from ships to shore had to be abandoned because the vessels couldn’t handle the weight.
In answers to questions on notice from a Senate defence estimates hearing, Defence said the trials were canned after the vessels sank too low in the water with a 62-tonne “non-swimmable” vehicle on board.
The 12 landing boats are costing taxpayers more than $230m.
When the manufacturer of Australia’s Tiger attack helicopters issued a warning that the aircraft were potentially in an “unsafe condition” last year, it was just the latest setback on a long list.
The helicopters were seven years late in reaching final operating capability and in 2016 the Australian National Audit Office issued a report that found 76 deficiencies. Of those, 60 of those were deemed to be critical.
The warning – which came after rotor blades on a German variant of the helicopter fell off in midflight, killing two crew members – led Defence to temporarily ground the aircraft.
Australia’s long-running, ill-fated attempt to buy $600m worth of anti-submarine torpedoes reached a new low in 2011 when the ABC reported that the Defence Materiel Organisation was hiring translators because the technical documentation for the European-designed weapons was written in Italian and French.
Described by a defence strategist as a “shemozzle”, the discovery came 12 years into a project that shrank considerably in scope since its inception and was plagued by poor planning and delays.
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