ASPI’s decades: Kit, complexity and capability
21 Jun 2021|

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

The military needs kit. Cash builds capability. Such plain propositions to describe such expensive complexity.

What do we get for what we pay? And we’re paying billions.

How capable are we with the capability we buy? Getting the kit and capability wrong means taking chances with what fate might throw at us.

Delay and difficulty and soaring dollars are a tough mix.

ASPI boss Peter Jennings lamented that no story seemed more enjoyable to an Australian audience than to be told our defence equipment purchases were all duds:

It’s beyond understanding why an Australian Defence Department that’s able to make such sensible decisions on equipment is so chronically unable to explain them. It’s not sustainable to treat Australia’s biggest ever defence investments like secret projects never to be discussed or explained.

In the absence of those explanations, we will continue to be subjected to an endless stream of critical commentary about the F-35 and future submarines that ranges from the mildly plausible to unhinged conspiracy theories.

When Andrew Davies stepped down after 12 years as director of ASPI’s defence and strategy program in 2018, he reflected that this period involved seven defence ministers, three defence white papers (though we still haven’t finished delivering the force structure from the 2000 version), two and a bit national shipbuilding plans, two wars and the approval of more than $100 billion in spending on major projects.

He penned a piece with a typically apt Davies headline, ‘A farewell to (writing about) arms’. ‘One of the challenges to a job like this,’ he wrote, ‘is to not slip into a persistently negative mindset regarding defence policy and procurement practices. After all, ASPI’s job is to question the prevailing wisdom, and to be Jiminy Cricket to Defence’s Pinocchio.’

The trick is to be constructive while being critical, to put forward a way ahead when discussing even the poorest outcomes of previous decisions. And, Davies notes, we must remember that, despite all the missteps along the way, the Australian Defence Force now is much more capable than it was in 2006 when he joined ASPI:

There are many things that could (and should) have been done faster, cheaper or better—and some that shouldn’t have been done at all—but the average outcome has been an improvement to the nation’s defence capabilities. Of course, it would be alarming indeed if that weren’t the case, given the size of the defence budget and the number of skilled people involved in the enterprise.

Major ASPI case studies tracked the history of kit, big and small:

  • Rearming the Anzacs: The story of how the navy’s Anzac-class frigates—once regarded as a second-tier warship, ‘fitted for but not with’ key weapons systems—were upgraded to become pound-for-pound ‘probably the best warship of its size in the world’.
  • Air warfare destroyer: the game-changer: ‘The AWD procurement was like none other. It involved the reluctant departure from office of two defence ministers; it fell into almost every organisational pitfall imaginable; it ran wildly over budget and schedule; yet it laid the foundation for a continuous naval shipbuilding industry for the first time in Australian history.’
  • Sticking to our guns: a troubled past produces a superb weapon: The tale of the ADF’s Steyr rifle, in service since 1988, and how it evolved to become a unique weapon developed and manufactured in Australia: ‘Gun debate can clamour like an angry mob, with noise and passion surging at the forward edge while reason and logic shrink to the rear. This may in part explain the polarity of opinion on Australia’s service rifle, the Austeyr.’
  • The Bushmaster: from concept to combat: How the army’s Bushmaster protected mobility vehicle was transformed from an ugly duckling—an ‘armoured Winnebago’—into a vital lifesaver for Australian and Dutch troops on combat operations in Afghanistan, a role it was never designed to play.

In the puzzle of kit and cash, here’s one of those simple questions: how much should the government disclose about its plans for equipping Australia’s military?

Wondering about this, Defence contracted ASPI to offer an answer. The resulting 2009 report found that there were tangible benefits in increasing the level of disclosure, and that the risks were manageable. Despite a discernible decline in capability planning transparency over recent years, Australia was still more open about its capability plans than most other countries.

Report authors Mark Thomson and Leigh Purnell commented that apart from military operations, no area of Defence got more attention than the procurement of capability. Billions of taxpayer dollars were involved and defence industry was a major enterprise, employing tens of thousands of Australians.

As a monopoly customer, the more that Defence told the market about its plans, the more likely that its needs would be met efficiently.

The more the public knew about defence planning, Thomson and Purnell wrote, the more likely was an informed public discussion of those plans, and the more readily Defence could be held to account for delivering them.

Disclosure about kit in all its complexity is a key way to tackle the duds-for-dollars dirge about defence.