BENDIGO-BUILT Hawkei armoured vehicles will be deployed after engineers found a solution to a long-running brakes issue.
Minister of defence Peter Dutton said the $2 billion fleet of 1100 light armoured vehicles would now be rolled out to army and air force units.
"The new fleet of lighter vehicles, which will come with 1,058 trailers, will better protect ADF personnel from blast and ballistic threats," he said.
The state-of-the-art vehicles were supposed to get their "initial operations capability" certification last December.
That was delayed after a "safety incident" in the Puckapunyal military base area east of Bendigo last November.
No-one was injured.
Defence later said the incident was caused by a brake problem and that both it and manufacturer Thales had grounded a fleet of 230 vehicles until they worked through the problem.
In a major step forward for the decade-long Hawkei research and development project, Defence has now greenlit the vehicles' initial capability certification.
Congratulations to the Thales Australia team in Bendigo achieving IOC declaration for #Hawkei, a significant milestone. #Hawkei is a brand new #Australianmade capability for the @AustralianArmy building on #Bushmasters lifesaving performance. https://t.co/Y5gcABSa1epic.twitter.com/67VMfwcUDj— Thales Australia (@ThalesAustralia) July 14, 2021
Thales has been in full production since mid-2020 and the brakes solution is being rolled out across the existing fleet.
The decision to give Hawkeis their initial operations capability certification guarantees about 210 jobs in Bendigo, with another 35 for support and about 180 jobs through the wider supply chain, minister for defence industry Melissa Price said.
"Hawkei has been designed and built in Australia by Thales Australia, which supports Australian jobs and Australian service personnel," she said.
Thales has thanked and congratulated its Australian team for securing the certification.
Hawkei weathers price criticism, engine supply collapses and a pandemic
Certification marks the end of a sometimes controversial process that began with a dream of supplying the military with an armoured vehicle strong enough to withstand a bomb blast but light enough to be lifted by a Chinook helicopter.
Thales locked $9 million to develop prototypes in 2010 but had to compete against other designs from overseas, including more advanced ideas in the United States.
"Thales had always argued it wanted the same opportunity to compete with the overseas manufacturers in Light Protected Mobility Vehicle manufacturing and that's precisely what has been achieved," then member for Bendigo Steve Gibbons said at the time.
Thales' prototypes - named after an Australian species of death adder - handed over for military testing in late 2012 and the military liked what it saw.
Then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull visited Bendigo in 2015 to announce Thales would supply Hawkeis to the military.
The decision drew criticism from a 2018 auditor-general's report blasting decision makers.
Auditor general Grant Hehir said a $1 billion Hawkei purchase was 23 per cent more expensive than a US equivalent.
His heavily redacted report was also critical of Defence's decision to spend $222 million on extra Bendigo-Bushmaster armoured vehicles to keep the Bendigo factory going pending Hawkei approvals.
"Limited justification had been provided as to why Bendigo required government assistance, given that its industrial base was reasonably diversified and its unemployment rate was only marginally higher than the national average," Mr Hehir said.
Thales Australia defended the decision at the time, arguing new Bushmaster orders allowed improvements to be made after examinations of vehicles destroyed by roadside bombs in Afghanistan war zones.
"There is no doubt that the deep engineering capability developed through an Australian design, manufacture and vehicle upgrade program saved lives," it said in a written response to the findings.
"This critical sovereign capability has been maintained and enhanced in the Hawkei program and will continue through the life of the platform."
That same year, Hawkeis were deployed to Iraq for testing and development continued apace.
The project hit a major hurdle in 2019 when Thales' engine supplier Styr Motors collapsed.
Thales took the extraordinary step of buying the Austrian company for the remainder of the Hawkei contract, in order to keep its contract with Defence and save Bendigo jobs.
The 2020 outbreak of the coronavirus in Australia could not stop Bendigo Hawkei builders.
The vehicles became a key plank in the Bendigo manufacturing sector's stability through the 2020 economic storm.
Thales announced it would double production at the height of the crisis in April 2020, directly adding 17 new jobs and giving confidence to 22 Australian businesses supplying parts.
This week's certification bolsters Bendigo's significance for national defence in an increasingly uncertain world.
A Defence paper published in mid-2020 says both Hawkeis and Bendigo-built Bushmasters would be key tools when credible military forces are required in coming decades.
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can access our trusted content: