The problem with Defence (Part 1)


Byline: Jim Molan / Canberra

(This is the first of two articles based on a speech given on September 19 to a Rockwell Collins “Connected, Aware, Responsive Technology” symposium)

One of my favourite books is Barbara Tuchman’s “March of Folly”. In this classic work she examines four instances of folly, which she defines as acts which are clearly contrary to the self-interest of the organization pursuing them; conducted over a period of time, not just in a single burst of irrational behaviour; conducted by a number of individuals, not just one deranged maniac; and, importantly, there have to be people alive at the time who pointed out correctly why the act in question was folly. The acts of folly she chose were the Trojan Wars, the loss of the American colonies by Britain, the Renaissance Popes failures resulting in the Reformation, and the conflict in Vietnam.

I want to make some comments about the folly of Australian defence planning. I suspect that rarely in the future will Australia be able to establish hardware superiority to the extent that we may have had it, at least in the close region and notionally, in the past. Now in our region and beyond, many nations will have the kit that we have, or the functional equivalent, or even better hardware.

To win in the future, Australia will need to bring the resources of the nation, military and non-military, to bear on any problem in an efficient and effective way. On the military side, this requires the best of military intellect applied to very good equipment from the top to the bottom. Nothing in my judgment is more important. Winners in the future will be those who are most effectively networked, and we must be not just among them, but be the leader.

An ex-public servant and scribe for the Canberra Times’ “Public Sector Informant”, Paddy Gourley, wrote last month about the Defence Minister’s uncritical acceptance of the current drive for accountability in Defence through the Black Review:

“You have to admire the gall of (three defence) ministers…but they should not expect anyone to believe them”.

This is a damming sentiment indeed. Most ministers for Defence have tried to reform Defence but none has succeeded to any great extent. What change for good there has been in certain areas of Defence has been achieved by insiders, by competent CDFs or Secretaries, or by the sobering discipline of operational deployments.

For those of you who, like me, don’t have a life and spend your time on blogs and twitter, you may have noticed an interesting exchange taking place on the Lowy Institute blog “The Interpreter”. The blog editor, a man with intelligence and government policy experience – a man with a fine mind and by far not the worst of we commentators – while discussing the number of JSFs that Australia might buy, implied that Australia would only go to war alongside the US. Because of this assumption, he therefore questioned what strategic weight we could ever bring to a fight. We might then conclude that the underlying conclusion might be: “Why spend money on the best capability when we can leave the heavy lifting to the US”.

A very influential ex-public servant now an academic, a man I must admit that I admire greatly and even sometimes agree with, then joined the verbal fight and postulated, much to my astonishment, that Australia should have the ability to go to war by itself. I was astonished because the ability to conduct independent operations is something that I take for granted, but I have found is not a view widely held or often considered.

This was an important discussion on the internet because it illustrates how there is still a gross mismatch between a military strategy (Australia should be able to conduct independent joint military operations – because that is what “going to war” really means) and the ability of Australia through the ADF to actually conduct independent, sophisticated, 21st Century joint operations, either now or into the future.

And this is what is really frightening about it all – this is our folly. I suggest that those who in the past have had disproportionate authority in choosing capabilities (senior Canberra public servants), and those who have the ultimate responsibility to create an effective defence capability (governments of all colours), still do not understand the link between their strategy and our tactics. Never has the military strategy expressed through a White Paper process been achievable by the ADF in terms of the tactical application of force. Now just think about that. Be it forward defence, defence of Australia, contingency operations, expeditionary operations, self sufficiency, jointery, and now Force 2030 – the policy makers have lived in a world of their own unrelated to the reality of what investment was creating in the ADF. For most of my military career, not even advanced net enablement would have given the ADF a chance to win, because it was a military force designed “for but not with” joint combat capability. The only reason that our strategy has not been seen to be the gross failure that it really is over the last forty years, is because it has never been tested. We are a lucky country indeed.

There is very little sympathy among the Australian population for the bureaucratic side of Defence in Australia. The popular view, one that obviously I do not share but one that exists, is that if Defence is so incompetent that it cannot manage its funding, then why fund Defence at all? This lack of sympathy is only increased when there are social issues with how Defence treats its people. The popular view then becomes that defence now cannot manage its funds and abuses its people, so why give it even one brass razoo, or why have your children join it?

Restoring the confidence of the Australian people (and the minister) in the ability of Defence to manage its funding is therefore a strategic issue because it impacts on the ability of Defence to win investment in the budget process and so to create future capability.

Governments have always tried to achieve greater efficiency in Defence and this is commendable. None have yet succeeded in any real sense. Perhaps part of the problem is that efficiency must always be balanced against effectiveness, and effectiveness has hardly ever been an issue. Effectiveness in Defence is not about bureaucratic processes, important though they are. It is not about the creation of policy, even though that is an important first step.

Effectiveness in defence is about the ability of the ADF, when required by the Australian people, to win in joint combat operations.

This starts to get to where my long introduction is going – efficiency and effectiveness are two sides of the same coin, particularly so in Defence.

The big question is almost never asked: As a result of society’s funding of Defence, how well can Defence fight and win our current wars and how well will they be able to fight and win our likely future wars?

This (or a similar question focussing on outputs) is the key to efficiency because it starts with effectiveness. If defence uses its inputs efficiently and achieves effectiveness, then accountability – which is what the Minister is trying to achieve – is relatively easy. If effectiveness cannot be measured because we are not sure what we exist for in real defined terms, then we will never achieve efficiency and so never achieve accountability.

The current attempt by government to achieve efficiency, somewhat separated from operational effectiveness but linked in some strange way to accountability, is itself commendable. This policy is encapsulated, as we all know, in the Black Review.

I am forced to express my personal view that that the Black Review is unlikely to improve the situation in Defence. This is because it further bureaucratizes Defence, taking us back to the 1980s – a time that many of us know was both inefficient and ineffective.

It is yet to be seen how this reform will increase accountability and not just increase the bureaucracy, because accountability can only be judged by actions that are taken when failures or successes occur. So the situation in Defence is likely to remain seriously sub-optimal for many years to come. Questions that need to be answered include:

Who are we going to sack or reward under this form of accountability, and what are we going to sack or reward them for?

Can and should efficiency, in certain circumstances, be traded off to achieve operational effectiveness?

Who do we sack if operational effectiveness is not achieved? What is operational effectiveness?

Is it just having good bits of kit, net enabled or not, or is it more?

I personally believe that the situation in the Defence bureaucracy is so bad that nothing short of a first principles, public review, with a willingness to totally reform Defence including (critically) the ministerial function, will suffice. This is unlikely to occur in the short term, however, and so the current system needs to be managed. And imperfection can be managed, because we have been managing the sub-optimal in Defence for years. The state of the ADF reflects that. Sadly, I fear that nothing but gross failure will spur such basic changes, and that is a frightening thought.

What I will offer you is a view that there is no point in trying to make Defence more efficient and more accountable unless you make the ministerial function and Parliament more efficient and definitely more accountable by stressing effectiveness. I will be suggesting to you a tool that will assist any Defence minister to achieve accountability in the defence bureaucracy. But it does require that accountability is applied even further than most ministers would want to apply it, that is, up into the Parliament and particularly into the ministerial function.

Let me take you through a few logical steps

When you get rid of the Canberra speak, Defence exists to fight our current wars and prepare for future wars.

Fighting current wars and spending money to prepare for future wars are expensive and there are social and political opportunity costs in defence expenditure.

Governments use words that imply that defence is a Government’s most important function.

The reality in Australia is that, in terms of expenditure or leadership time applied, Defence is very much a secondary function.

This is because, in these low threat times, our current wars are wars of choice and our future threats are indistinct. However, that does not make either, but particularly the more substantial future contingencies, any less dangerous.

Wars of choice are comparatively easy to run because, having choice, you can choose whether you participate, when you participate, at what level you participate, how hard you fight, what level of enemy you are prepared to confront, how aggressive you are going to be, what casualties are acceptable and when to come home. This makes strategy ridiculously simple and we all know that there is nothing wrong with the ability to fight off our people. For most countries, in wars of choice, you don’t actually have to win, you just have to participate. To illustrate the variation that is possible in wars of choice, look at the difference between how we approached combat in southern Iraq and how our special forces are fighting in Uruzgan province. So wars of choice can be conducted from almost any force size or nature.

The only problem really arises when the government thinks it has certain capabilities, that is, it thinks that the ADF can fight, and it wants to consider an option of more robust support for an ally for whatever political, alliance or military reason, such as it did in the first and second Gulf Wars, and then again in the occupation of Iraq. Problems arise when it finds that the capability for modern combat does not exist in the ADF. It then asks itself and others why it has been paying billions each year for defence yet now Defence cannot deliver many options, Defence is not ready. In my view, this is one of the reasons for the current historically interesting reliance on Special Forces.

So wars of choice are not the issue from a Defence efficiency point of view, and whatever we happen to have determines effectiveness. They are comparatively easy and are not the problem.

The bigger problem, and the area of most damming folly, is that governments need to reassure the Australian population that longer term security, the preparation for future wars, is being addressed.

Governments do this primarily through issuing and then updating White Papers and equipment procurement plans.

The public versions of the White Papers are written by large numbers of stakeholders for political effect and often lack rigour and internal consistency. But they look good in the eyes of the public. The public loves them and is reassured by them: 100 JSFs, 12 subs – wow!

No White Paper has ever been realised of course: what has been forecast in the White Paper has never been reflected in terms of capability in the ADF. There has never been a link between the military strategy that comes out, directly or indirectly, in the White Paper and the actuality of the force that is supposed to apply it. What an extraordinary situation this is, yet we seem to happily accept it.

But even worse than this enormous failure of strategic alignment – in every White Paper – the investment promised is quietly removed to achieve other more immediately pressing political needs.

If the removal is likely to be noticed, then Governments stress the unworthiness of Defence to receive any of the taxpayers’ monies. If Defence does not deserve it, then there is no problem about removing it. Some of the recent Defence scandals certainly came at the right time to facilitate defence bashing before the last budget.

The removal of investment is done through the cancelation or deferment of projects. Some projects defer or cancel themselves, some deserve to be deferred or cancelled, and some are cancelled because the bureaucratic process, culminating in a minister’s office or through the National Security Committee of Cabinet (always so busy with border control) is not capable of processing them and sees no reason to be more bureaucratically efficient.

It is most interesting to me that the investment proposed to be made in Defence and announced in each White Paper was supposedly made on the basis of a recognised need that supposedly came out of intense analysis within Defence and was supposedly related somehow to intelligence judgements of future threats.

But the hollowness of this process is shown by the fact that monies are removed from Defence with no reference to previous analysis or to a change in the strategic environment. In some circumstances, and I would suggest we are in one now, the strategic situation has become more uncertain over time, not less uncertain, yet investment is still removed from Defence.

One of the greatest contributors to this Defence problem, as I see it, is that there is little downside for governments in removing monies from the portfolio. Voters are impressed by talk in White Papers of large numbers of fighters, submarines or soldiers, and once the White Paper process is complete, voters move on to more immediate concerns based on the assumption that Defence is in good hands.

Voters may be excused for confusing the statement of policy in White Papers with actual achievements in Defence capability, but often the Defence bureaucracy sees their greatest achievement as the creation of policy rather than the creation of real Defence capability. Policy is the easy part of creating defence capability.

Removing funds from Defence may increase the risk to the security of the nation, and I am the first to agree that in some circumstances, such as when we are in a time of peace, this is justifiable.

Governments are in power to take risks, to balance needs across the community – this is the old discussion of ‘guns’ or ‘butter’.

Defence must fight for the resources that it needs against competing national priorities.

The Defence (and especially the defence industry) problem is that it is too easy for governments to remove long term investment monies for short term political wins, which creates a roller coaster ride for defence capability and defence industry, and which goes against efficiency, effectiveness and accountability. How can any government do this and still scream for efficiency in the department and the ADF?

This is made possible for governments because the impact of removing previously announced investment in defence is visible to almost no one. The lack of public concern or even comment with the billions of dollars removed from Defence in the last budget is proof positive.

(Jim Molan is a retired major general, author, defence and security commentator, consultant and speaker. Part II of this article will be published in November APDR)


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