Australia's army is set to acquire a fleet of more than 1,000 Hawkei armored vehicles as part of a $1.3 billion deal with French defense contractor Thales, the country's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced Monday.
Hawkei vehicles are highly versatile, and can support a wide range of military interventions — from humanitarian missions to combat operations.
Named after a native Australian snake, the 7-ton Hawkei can carry up to 6 soldiers, reach speeds of 70 miles per hour, and can even be air-lifted by a helicopter. It is also equipped with a special V-shaped hull designed to deflect IED blasts and small-arms fire.
The vehicle is "designed to be mobile, easily deployed and still offer efficient protection against Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)," explained Corentin Brustlein, a research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
The Hawkei is a smaller version of the Bushmaster — the 10-person armored vehicle previously used by the Australian army. Manufactured by Thales' Australian subsidiary since 2004, the armored Bushmaster vehicles were deployed on the front lines in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Australians are specialized in this type of heavily armored truck. It's a legacy of the Iraq war, which they were heavily involved in," Brustlein explained. But unlike the Bushmaster, which the researcher described as "conspicuous and slow," he said the new Hawkei can be used in "all types of mission[s]."
As part of its deal with the Australian government, Thales's Australian subsidiary will build 1,100 Hawkeis and more than 1,000 trailers at its facility in the southeastern Australian city of Bendigo. The building phase, set to begin in mid-2017, will take an estimated three and a half years, with the first vehicles scheduled for delivery by the end of that year.
Following in the footsteps of the American military — that announced in August it would replace the US Army's 55,000 Humvees with new Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTV) — Australia is seeking to adapt its military apparatus to modern warfare. This involves protecting its troops from road bombs and allowing them to move swiftly through enemy positions.
"The reality is that IEDs, for example, are a feature of the modern battlefield and regardless of the context in which the Australian Defense Force is operating, that type of threat is almost certainly going to be there," Turnbull told reporters. "These vehicles are able to operate in every terrain."
Australia is part of the US-led coalition that has been carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria and Iraq. Turnbull dispelled the notion that Australia's newly announced contract with Thales signified a greater military engagement. "I am not signaling that," Turnbull told reporters at Monday's press conference.
"The prime minister's statement was intended to reassure public opinion, particularly as regards Australia not sending ground troops into Iraq," explained Brustlein. According to the research fellow, Australia's objective is to have "a rapid response capability, thanks to versatile vehicles."
"Australia's area of interest is Oceania and southeast Asia, which are often hit by natural disasters. [These vehicles] can support humanitarian assistance, for example, by connecting villages that are geographically distant from one another. But they also introduce the possibility of going to Yemen, or remaining in Iraq if it's necessary," said Brustlein.
Australia's Defense Minister Marise Payne also noted that the Australia-made Hawkei had "enormous" export potential. "The fact that it is a lighter vehicle than the traditional Bushmaster, the fact that it has a degree of mobility in very high-risk areas, and has a significant degree of blast and ballistic protection for our serving members means that it should be very attractive on the international market," she said.
Australia hopes that its investment will generate 170 local jobs.
The Hawkei contract is just the latest defense investment for Australia, which has been on a path to improve its military arsenal for a while. In April 2014, the government signed a deal to buy 58 US-made fighter jets and the government has also announced its decision to acquire a new fleet of submarines.
"[The Hawkei contract] is not a negligible contract for Australia, but it's not that huge compared to these other big projects," said Brustlein. "The purchase of submarines or new fighter jets is much more in line with Australia's ambitions: to be more autonomous if needed."
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Image via Thales