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07 Nov 03. Australia plans to buy new tanks, ships and missiles to help combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction, regional instability and a new global environment of terror.

Defence Minister Robert Hill said on Friday Australia would upgrade its ageing Leopard tanks and a decision on which tank to buy — the Abrams and modern versions of the Leopard and Challenger 2 were being considered — would be made in the near future.

Since the end of the Cold War surplus tanks have often been available from the stocks of NATO armies. Hill said three new air warfare destroyers would be acquired, which the government strongly preferred to be built in Australia, and Raytheon Co SM-2 missiles would be introduced to four of the Navy’s six guided-missile frigates.

The air force already has plans for new Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft and Northrop Grumman Corp Global Hawk reconnaissance drones, new airborne radar aircraft were in production and a tender was out for air-to-air refuelling aircraft, Hill said. Although a final decision on whether to buy the Joint Strike Fighters would not be made until 2006, Hill said the air force had advised him the country’s ageing F-111 aircraft would begin to be withdrawn from service from 2010 instead of 2012.

Hill said the purchases would ensure the defence forces “continue to be able to defend Australia and Australian interests in an uncertain and complex environment”.

The upgrades follow a review of defence capabilities that reaffirmed the defence of Australia and regional requirements should be the primary drivers of the force structure and that protection of the country’s borders remain as important as ever.

Australia’s amphibious lift ships HMAS Tobruk, Manoora and Kanimbla, which all transport troops and equipment, would be replaced from 2010 onwards and the oiler HMAS Westralia, which provides fuel and stores to other ships at sea, will be replaced. No cost details or possible suppliers were mentioned but major suppliers for naval combat systems, such as would be needed in the destroyers, include Lockheed Martin, Thales and AMS. Hill had foreshadowed plans to reshape the 50,000-strong Australian Defence Force (ADF) to give it a more global focus in a speech given in June.

“In the near term, there is less likely to be a need for ADF operations in defence of mainland Australia,” he said then. But last month Australia was forced to play down suggestions it was policing the Asia-Pacific for the United States after President George W. Bush called his close ally a “sheriff” for the region. Canberra was criticised by its Asian neighbours in 1999 when it led a multinational force in East Timor after a vote to break free from Indonesia sparked violence by pro-jakarta militias. Australia more recently led a 2,225-strong peacekeeping force of soldiers and police from six regional nations to stop the lawless Solomon Islands from spiralling into anarchy.

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