Herald and Weekly Times, AUSTRALIAN Army crews may be flown to trouble spots to man Abrams battle tanks alongside US troops under a radical plan.

Sections of the army are so keen to buy $500 million worth of tanks that they are considering the concept.

Under the plan, crews would train on 50 or more of the 60-tonne machines here and then travel to trouble spots to serve with the Americans operating US-owned tanks.

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HEAVY HITTER: An Abrams tank in Iraq
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Australian military personnel already work on exchange with a variety of US military units.

The Government is due to reveal a shopping list for $25 billion worth of military hardware this month.

The US military wants Australia to buy Abrams tanks, equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and night-fighting gear, for future coalition operations in places such as Iran and Korea.

Defence Minister Robert Hill told the Sunday Herald Sun he was still not convinced of the merits of buying new tanks.

“The debate has a way to go,” Senator Hill said.

His spokeswoman said there had not yet been any Government debate on the tank question.

The army has argued strongly that light vehicles are highly vulnerable to shoulder-fired weapons, such as the Javelin missile, used by the SAS in Iraq.

Tanks were not included in the 2001 Defence Capability Plan after the military failed to persuade the Government of their merits.

So far, the military has been unable to convince the Government about who it requires protection from, and where the tanks might be used.

Army Chief Lieutenant General Peter Leahy has told the Government he is prepared to sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars worth of other weapons projects to secure more tanks. He wants the army to move from a light infantry to a light armoured force.

It is understood Lt-Gen Leahy favours the German-built, 40-tonne Leopard 2 tank. The army has about 60 fully-operational Leopard 1 tanks, from a total fleet of 100 that entered service 30 years ago.

Defence chief General Peter Cosgrove is pushing for the much heavier Abrams main battle tank, which featured prominently in Iraq.

The British Challenger II tank is a third possibility.

It is not clear what role the tanks would play in countering what the Government sees as the major threat faced by Australia – terrorism.

One of Australia's leading military strategists, Professor Paul Dibb, from the Australian National University, said he had two main concerns about new tanks.

He said 50 or so Australian tanks would have little impact in a US-led coalition operation such as Iraq, and he saw no role for them in regional operations.

Professor Dibb said $400 million would buy two additional early warning and control aircraft, or a further six troop-lift helicopters.

He said the US was short of airborne early warning and control aircraft and six would allow Australia to operate in two geographical areas at once.