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THE army's newest frontline weapon, the Abrams battle tank, arrived in Australia yesterday and immediately encountered problems, with no rail transport available to carry the tank to the Northern Territory.
Its deployment will be further hampered because, at 68 tonnes, the Abrams is too heavy to travel across road bridges in the Northern Territory.
As the first 18 of the tanks were delivered to Port Melbourne, the operators of the Adelaide-to-Darwin railway said they lacked the equipment to carry them. Adelaide-based Freightlink said the tanks were too big.
"Freightlink has participated in a rail study with the implication for new rolling stock to be acquired," the company said.
It did not say when or if it intended to acquire the required rolling stock and suggested it was waiting for contracts to be signed with the Defence Department before going ahead with the purchase. A total of 59 refurbished tanks were bought from the US for $500 million.
Transporting them north by road is likely to be problematic.
A senior Northern Territory shire engineer said road bridges in the Katherine Shire had a maximum capacity of 50 tonnes, 18 tonnes less than the weight of one Abrams tank. Road trains weighing up to 50 tonnes are able to use the bridges by disconnecting a trailer, he said.
The tanks, described by federal Defence Minister Brendan Nelson as the best in the world, have a fuel economy as low as 200m alitre.
While the US-made tank provides unmatched protection for its crew of four, experts claim its jet turbine engine is three times more expensive to run than the diesel engines in the army's ageing Leopard 1s. A Defence spokesman said the Abrams's 2200-litre fuel tanks ensured they had a similar range to the Leopards and that an additional eight refuelling trucks would be provided to the army's 1st Armoured Regiment in Darwin.
Critics also claim the Abrams's high heat emission will constrict its ability to work with infantry in urban areas.
But a Defence Department spokesman said the Australian Abrams had been designed to minimise their heat emission to a level comparable to diesel-powered tanks.
Army mechanics will be kept busy if the US army experience is any guide. It allocates 25 per cent of its maintenance budget for ground combat systems to fixing Abrams gas turbine engines.
But Dr Nelson says the Abrams still offers the best value. "These tanks are the most advanced and capable in the world. This capability will be increasingly important as widespread proliferation of cheap, high-tech and lethal anti-armour, anti-personnel weapons could pose an increasing threat in any future conflict," he said.
Federal Opposition defence spokesman Robert McClelland questioned the need for such a large tank.
"The wisdom of the Abrams acquisition has to be questioned in the light of the limited use they are going to have in our region," he said.
"And specifically, in the light of the logistical issues they are going to present to the ADF simply within Australia."
The Abrams contract forms part of the Defence Department's new "hardened and networked" initiative to beef up the army's hardware.
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