Sending Bushmasters would prove support for Ukraine

| April 2, 2022

In his speech to Australia’s parliament, Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky asked for ‘wonderful’ Bushmaster troop carriers, which he said could significantly help his country.

Nations such as Australia should help arm those fighting for freedom, Zelensky said. ‘For evil to lose and for Russia to seek peace, Ukraine must have everything it needs on the battlefield.

‘For example, you have wonderful Bushmaster armoured vehicles that can significantly help Ukraine. As well as other models of equipment and weapons that can strengthen our position. If you have the opportunity, Ukraine will be grateful to you.

‘Now in Ukraine they will definitely do more for our common freedom, for our common security than being covered with dust on your land. The Ukrainian people have already shown the world how sincerely we value freedom. How consistently we are ready to defend it.’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, representing Defence Minister Peter Dutton in a Senate estimates hearing, have now indicated that Bushmasters would be sent to Ukraine.

So, what is a Bushmaster, and could it make a difference?

The policy seeds that ultimately produced the Australian-designed and -built Bushmaster armoured troop carrier were planted in the Hawke government’s 1987 defence white paper, The defence of Australia, which raised the possibility of small groups of foreign troops landing in the country’s north and identified the need for Australia’s ground forces to be given the mobility and speed to find and deal with them. That spurred the decision to obtain a large number of lightly armoured and versatile troop carriers.

It was assessed that such raiders would arrive lightly equipped and aim to capture materials to build bombs, which were later to become ubiquitous in Iraq and Afghanistan as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

The Bushmaster’s DNA contained echoes of wars past and campaigns on continents far away, drawing on South African and Rhodesian experiments with landmine-blast-deflecting V-shaped hulls.

Its development drew, too, on the experiences of Australian troops on peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and in nations such as Namibia and Cambodia who saw both the devastating impact of landmines on the occupants of soft-skinned vehicles like 4WDs and the effectiveness of vehicles designed to defend against them.

After decades of development and lessons learned in battle, the result, built by Thales Australia, was vastly more effective and better protected than the lightly armoured vehicle originally envisaged. Proof was delivered in Iraq and Afghanistan, where around 100 Bushmasters were blown up but not a single soldier died in one.

Each of the RAAF’s giant C-17 Globemaster II transport aircraft can carry four Bushmasters.

The Australian Defence Force has sufficient numbers to part with some—ADF land systems commander Major General Andrew Bottrell told Senate estimates the ADF had 946.

Last night, an international donors’ conference coordinating aid to Ukraine included Bushmasters in its discussion.

An air bridge using the C-17s could get a meaningful number to Europe within a matter of weeks. With relatively low-tech militaries like Fiji’s and Jamaica’s already operating Bushmasters, the resourceful Ukrainians could master their operation very quickly.

Since the Netherlands already has nearly 100 Bushmasters, it’s a potential area for cooperation between two Western democracies eager to demonstrate their support for Ukraine. The Dutch, as Europe’s major Bushmaster operator, could potentially provide forward logistics and training support, for example.

In the role they were designed for, Bushmasters would be a useful, but not game-changing, capability for Ukraine. As protected mobility vehicles, they safeguard their occupants against mines, IEDs, small arms like machine guns, and artillery blast and fragmentation. They could move forces around rear areas, or potentially evacuate non-combatants from besieged cities.

They won’t protect against a direct hit from a tank, howitzer or anti-tank missile, all of which Russia has in abundance. So, while the Bushmaster proved itself against the threats it came up against in Afghanistan, it won’t be impervious to everything it might encounter in Ukraine.

The daily grind of war will take its toll on the vehicles. We’ll need to provide training in their maintenance and an ongoing, liberal supply of spares. How you sustain a logistics chain to Bushmasters scattered across Ukraine is anyone’s guess, but excellent techniques to maintain and upgrade them were developed in theatre in Afghanistan.

After bombings there, troops sent back technical reports and ‘tiger teams’ of engineers and scientists were dispatched to the war zone to examine the damage and find ways to strengthen the vehicle. Thales Australia was able to improve Bushmasters on the production line and in the operational area.

And the Ukrainians have shown themselves to be adept at putting all kinds of equipment from around the world into service.

If we do supply the vehicles to Ukraine, we need to accept that we may see footage of destroyed Bushmasters. And with both sides putting captured materiel into service, we might see them with the now infamous ‘Z’ painted on their sides. It was jarring to see the Taliban driving around Kabul in US Humvees originally provided to the Afghan army. It will be the same with captured Bushmasters (which would inevitably be accompanied by the information warfare and internet trolling that has become a feature of this conflict).

But the Australian Bushmasters will be a highly visible demonstration that the world is watching and supporting Ukraine. For Zelensky, that will be as important as any military capability they will provide.

More than 1,000 Bushmasters have been delivered to the Australian Army and to Royal Australian Air Force airfield defence guards. Other vehicles based on the troop carrier are being used by firefighters in South Australia. In all, 116 Bushmasters have been sold to the Netherlands. Thirty were sold to the UK for its Special Air Service Regiment and it used some of those in Syria and Iraq.

As of May 2021, 234 bushmasters had been sold overseas, 48 to New Zealand, 10 to Fiji for use in the Middle East on UN peacekeeping missions, four to Indonesia, eight to Japan and 18 to Jamaica. In 2018, Thales sent three Bushmaster Multi-Role 6 variants to the UK with a range of enhancements targeting the selection competition for the British Army’s multi-role protected vehicle. One was to be blast tested; the other two were an ambulance and a troop carrier. These vehicles are designated MR6 because there had been five previous production runs.

If providing Bushmasters to Ukraine proves successful, the next step could be to provide our Abrams tanks, as commentators quickly proposed in the wake of Zelensky’s speech to parliament. We haven’t deployed our tanks since the Vietnam War and, as Zelensky said, it’s better for equipment to be put into service against Russia than sit around in parks.

Moreover, we have new Abrams tanks on order as replacements for our fleet of 59 older-generation Abrams. Certainly, providing a tank capability would be a major step up in terms of training and logistics requirements compared to Bushmasters and would need careful planning. So, rather than sending them straight to Ukraine, providing them to Poland (which has also ordered Abrams from the US) to free up its Soviet-era tanks for the Ukraine could be an option.