Contestability—once more into the breach
8 Apr 2015|

Around 100 Australian and Afghan National Army vehicles travelled past Arghandab Dam, near Kandahar City, during Operation Tor Ghar IV.

Last week I described the ‘new’ contestability mechanisms designed into the First Principles Review revamp of the Defence capability process. I observed that the new contestability mechanism closely resembles the old Force Development and Analysis Division. I also predicted that the spectre of FDA rising from the grave would cause some angst, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Jim Molan’s documented list of grievances against FDA is instructive, and accurately depicts  the main points of friction. He wrote that FDA had:

  • an assumption that civilian intellect would always triumph over military experience
  • a belief that air and maritime tactics were so simple that anyone could understand them and land tactics so bizarre that they were not even worth addressing
  • an inability to understand that strategy is based on sound tactics and sound tactics is based on ideas, people, equipment and training
  • the belief that the end product of the department is the written word to the Minister rather than usable military capability
  • a childlike fascination for simplistic military history leading to a belief that there are simple answers to complex problems
  • and finally, a cavalier attitude to the creation of effective military capability based on the fact that to many members of FDA, it was all just a clever bureaucratic game.

Long-time readers of The Strategist will know that Jim and I don’t always see eye-to-eye. (Here, here, here and here, for starters.) But I’m going to break with tradition and agree with Jim that many of those critiques have a basis in fact, though I’d take exception to the ‘bureaucratic game’ remark. I think that FDA did sometimes get into the business of trying to second guess the military in their professional space, and didn’t do a very good job of it. By doing so they created ill-will and added little value.

But we’ve just spent a decade or so trying it another way, with the military firmly behind the steering wheel of the Capability Development Group and with limited contestability from within. The result was a Defence Capability Plan (DCP) that’s completely out of whack—certainly far more so than was the case during the FDA days. The trick, then, is to work out how to make arm’s length contestability work. So here’s my unsolicited advice to the incoming managers of contestability, based on my experience both inside and outside the Defence Department.

First—and probably foremost—don’t make everything a contest. Some capability proposals will be eminently sensible. In that case, your brief should note that the proposition is fundamentally solid. If applicable, sound a few warnings about any uncertainties (especially in costings) and let it go. In a sensible world, no one should be expecting a death match at every turn.

Second, be as quantitative as you can. Getting into an argument with the Army about infantry tactics is a losing proposition. The military understands its core business much better than you do and you run the risk of looking amateurish. Instead, your trump card can be facts and figures. (But see the previous point, which could also be summarised as: ‘trump card, sparing use thereof’.) You’ll have to watch the inputs; they have to be realistic, and your military colleagues will have to agree to them. On that point, be careful that you don’t get ‘gamed’. It’s possible to so constrain the inputs that the calculation is guaranteed to produce the desired answer. Sensitivity analysis is your friend.

Third, the aim of the game—sorry Jim, that should read ‘serious exercise in public policy formulation’—is producing the ADF capability that best matches government guidance, for the lowest cost. The best thing you can do is put on the table a range of options of different capability at different costs. Your job is to clearly explain the strengths and weaknesses of each, including the potential project risks of options that require development work. In most cases it won’t be necessary (or desirable) to champion one over the others—let the numbers and qualitative assessments of each speak for themselves. The 80-20 principle is your friend.

Fourth, take a portfolio view of capability development. A highly priced option for one proposed acquisition necessarily has an opportunity cost elsewhere. Make sure your military colleagues see this explicitly, because ignoring that is how the DCP got into its present state. Microsoft Excel is your friend.

Finally, beg, borrow or steal a copy—other than mine—of Augustine’s book on military acquisition. Augustine is very much your friend.