The ADF has had another demanding year operationally with a continuing focus on Afghanistan where there has been further loss of life, accompanied by deployments in other theatres such as Timor Leste and the Solomons. The Navy and Air Force have been operating at a brisk tempo in support of these activities. There has been continuing discussion about whether our deployment in Oruzgan is sufficient or whether further efforts should be made, particularly during the period before the Parliamentary debate about Australia’s involvement.

Speaking to the media on 22 November, new Defence Minister Stephen Smith touched on the reasons why Australia was unable to take over the lead in Afghanistan from the Dutch when it became clear last year that they would pull out. The Minister explained that the ADF lacked “the so-called enablers” that the Dutch possessed and which the United States would replace. These “so-called enablers” appear to be: artillery; attack helicopters; and aircraft able to provide close air support.

It is worth asking: how is it that the Netherlands can provide these things but Australia cannot? With a population of 16 million and a defence budget between half and one third of ours, they were nevertheless able to deploy Apache helicopters, F-16s, Chinooks and even self-propelled artillery. Not bad for a country with a smaller defence force than Australia’s and with defence spending less than 2% of GDP – a proportion the same or smaller than ours.

In addition, during the past decade Dutch forces have been deployed to: Uzbekistan, Kosovo, Kenya, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti; Bosnia and of course Afghanistan. Their defence budget is now a mess due to cutbacks caused by Europe’s debt crisis – but their track record of fielding equipment and supporting operations has been impressive. The Dutch have left Afghanistan with a reputation for being thorough and cautious – not such a bad thing – and their contribution will be missed.

In these pages we have sometimes questioned the efficiency, structure and staffing of the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) and is worth raising again in this discussion about the Dutch. The Dutch Ministry of Defence has an Equipment Department numbering 1,300 staff, compared with the DMO approaching 8,000 – and continuing to expand. Surely the time has come to benchmark our procurement processes against countries that seem to be far more efficient: the Netherlands; Singapore; South Korea and the Nordic nations.

There seems to be a collective unwillingness in the defence community to ask whether DMO itself is providing value for money. It seems easier to blame industry for everything and a view seems to exist that companies are a bunch of greedy schemers who continually complain to the Minister or run to the media. This is actually far from reality and most companies are reconciled to making modest profits, try and do a good job and conduct themselves with considerable caution out of fear of offending an all-powerful Department. Sections of defence industry are now really starting to hurt because there has been an appreciable slowdown in issuing and awarding tenders and this situation looks to be worsening. As a former Deputy Secretary once famously observed about Defence’s project management abilities: “When we see light at the end of the tunnel, we build more tunnel”.

Some observers have noted that as industry starts to shed jobs the Department is on track to grow by another 1,400 staff this year, to be followed by an additional 600 in 2011/12. There seems to be a lack of awareness that more process, more administration, more probity and more documentation will not make the situation better.

The inability, unwillingness or reluctance to deploy equipment in support of operations in case the paint gets scratched goes back a long way. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Cabinet went into emergency session to discuss what could be provided after an urgent request from Washington for support. The RAAF were not in a position to contribute because aircraft lacked electronic warfare self-protection; Army likewise had no units ready to go; Navy was able to provide two frigates – which had to stay well out of harm’s way and remained at the entrance to the Straights of Hormuz; a navy clearance diving team was dispatched and made a valuable, if small, contribution. Cabinet was amazed and then angered that after billions of dollars worth of expenditure, so little hardware was actually available.

Last year when Australia had to contemplate the possibility of taking over from the Dutch how different the situation would have been if – like the French – we had decided to forget the paperwork and urgently deploy Tiger helicopters? Or if LAND 17 hadn’t dragged on and on and we actually had self-propelled artillery in service? And what is wrong with the F-18s that have been progressively upgraded for a billion dollars and now can fly with targeting pods and Link 16?

No matter: our troops on the ground are doing an excellent job in difficult circumstances.

To all of our readers, the staff at Ventura Media would like to wish everyone a happy and safe Christmas and a prosperous and safe New Year.

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