ASPI answers a letter from a reader
25 Sep 2012|

Dear ASPI,

I have a ‘friend’ who has an embarrassing problem with defence planning. It seems no matter what he tries, it ends up expensive and unsatisfactory. What can he do?

Worried of Parliament Hill

Dear Worried,

You should console your friend that he is not the only one having these sorts of difficulties—in fact, it’s almost de rigueur in defence (PDF) (or defense) circles. But I know how uncomfortable this can be when a big event like forming government after an election is looming.

Alas, there’s no magic formula for fixing it. But there are some things that might help. Here’s a dos and don’ts list for approaching defence acquisition (with some suggested ASPI reading).


  • have a close look at ‘80-20 solutions’—those applications of (relatively) simple and (relatively) cheap technologies that give a fair proportion of the capability of more expensive systems at a fraction of the price. For example, surveillance is an area where a mix of long-range, very capable platforms could be supplemented by cheaper shorter-range ones.
  • take a whole of nation view of capability where appropriate. Defence isn’t the only stakeholder in aspects of national security such as border protection and in cyberspace.
  • be transparent in your defence policies and acquisitions. There will be times when you don’t like this—and the Defence Department certainly won’t—but it will be better for us all in the long run. Mark Thomson and Leigh Purnell’s 2010 report has some good pointers.
  • understand the nature of fixed and marginal costs in defence procurement—having a large number of small fleets means a lot of overheads and runs the risk of insufficient capacity in any given area.
  • wherever possible, stick with the now tried and true avenue of procurement of proven systems from a close ally under the American Foreign Military Sales process.


  • be seduced by the lure of high-end technology for its own sake; keep the focus on what you want the forces to be able to achieve and remember that it isn’t done in a vacuum; the capability of credible adversaries is a consideration, as is the location of operations. Projecting power against Australia is a formidable task.
  • rush white papers—they have a tendency to come back and bite a few years down the track. In particular, take the time to get the funding as right as possible, because Mark Thomson will soon find out if you don’t.
  • conflate defence policy and industry policy. Whether we like it or not, the worldwide defence industry landscape is increasingly dominated by a handful of multi-nationals. Swimming against the tide will only run down our resources faster and is at odds with our national strategy over the past half century.
  • defer to advice from the Department when your instincts say differently. We’ve seen what happens when it’s left to its own devices.
  • attempt to hide a back step in defence planning/policy by pretending that it was all part of the grand plan—admit the change up front (as the press and others will identify it for you anyway) and explain the reason for it.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist.