ASPI’s decades: Thinking about the Department of Defence

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

Created to both know and kick the Department of Defence, ASPI pursues this part of its mission with gusto.

Sharp analysis starts with an understanding of the magnitude of Defence’s job. To be useful, contestability requires a clear-eyed assessment of the nature of the contest and the players.

When a Defence management review was launched in 2007, Mark Thomson wrote that more fixes were needed in central management and leadership, while offering a sympathetic description of the task:

Defence management is of a scale and complexity unparalleled in Australia below that of the state and federal governments themselves. Not only is Defence one of the largest employers in the country—comparable with the Coles and Woolworths retail chains—but it maintains a diverse range of technologically sophisticated military equipment valued at more than $32 billion. Defence is also the country’s largest single land owner with more than 30,000 buildings spread across the length and breadth of the continent. In addition, Defence undertakes complex operations at short notice ranging from disaster relief through to peacekeeping and conventional war-fighting. No other entity in Australia has to deal with the diversity and complexity of missions allocated to Defence.

The complexity reflected the importance of what had to be delivered. Prime Minister John Howard told an ASPI conference in 2007: ‘I recently remarked to the Defence leadership group that the ADF’s current operational tempo is greater than at any time since the Vietnam war, but also that the complexity and global character of the security challenges we face make them even more serious.’

Concurrent operations were being conducted in Iraq, Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands, and the ADF had recently completed shorter missions to Fiji and Tonga. Thomson posed the question: Are our defence forces overstretched? Had we reached the point where the scale and diversity of ADF deployments were no longer sustainable?

As always, Thomson went and analysed the numbers. He noted the burden was far from shared evenly, with some parts of the ADF called upon more often than others to deploy in a rolling program of six-month tours.

The operational tempo, though, needed to be seen in the context of an ADF that was hard-working even in peacetime: a small force maintaining a large range of high-tech military capabilities. There’d been no discernible increase to the rate of separations from the ADF compared with historical norms. The operational burden was commensurate with historical precedents post–World War II and was far less than that currently faced by the US and Britain. Thomson’s conclusion: ‘[W]hile the ADF is busy and under some pressure, it is not yet overstretched.’

With the election of the Rudd government in 2007 and its 2009 defence white paper, Labor placed its stamp on defence and strategic policy. ASPI produced a set of papers to explain what it meant for defence policy and what it said about the habits of the Department of Defence.

Rod Lyon was struck by how much ‘uncertainty’ was built into the white paper’s portrayal of the future international security environment, writing: ‘The paper frequently depicts multiple “futures”. Moreover, the paper’s authors often provide more than one judgment on key issues, generally at the price of confusion and contradiction.’

On the world view of Defence, Lyon offered the shrewd assessment of a thinker with long experience as a Canberra practitioner: ‘Australian defence planners remain realists: they trust power and military hardware as the principal means of securing Australia’s interests close to its own coastline, but advocate rules-based order and institutions further away.’

Andrew Davies said that, despite media reporting of new efforts in ‘Australia’s military build-up’, most of the initiatives were based on existing plans and capabilities.

Looking out twenty years at the mooted ADF of 2030, we find that it will be a lot like today’s force with half a dozen extra submarines. And today’s force is itself very similar to that of twenty years ago. Indeed, give or take an aircraft carrier and a few battalions, we can trace the essential shape of the ADF still further back. So this White Paper in many ways perpetuates the force structure that’s been in place since the Menzies Government went shopping in the 1960s. This strongly hints that the strategic discussions in White Papers over the years have been less closely linked to the development of our forces than is purported to be the case. Governments and White Papers come and go, but the ADF marches on.

The strategic argument of the white paper, Davies wrote, ‘could be paraphrased as “the rise of China may upset the power structure we’re very comfortable with, and we don’t want that”’. The force structure Australia wanted to have by 2030 indicated that ‘we’ve chosen, at least in principle, to side with the US—or, at the very least, to retain the option to do so’.

In 2013, a study of Australia’s regional defence diplomacy said old criticisms still applied: a lack of financial information management and clear and public articulation of the goals and objectives of defence cooperation. Defence’s emphasis had shifted from aid to working with allies and partners to promote a secure region, as Sam Bateman, Anthony Bergin and Hayley Channer wrote:

Changes in the power relativities in the region are profound and have major implications for defence engagement. As regional defence forces expand and modernise and we lose our technological advantage, engagement becomes more about strategic partnerships and less about aid and assistance. This requires a significant change of mindset. We need to think differently about how we engage in the region and better understand what is meant by ‘strategic partnership’.

The Abbott Coalition government tackled the tangles of Defence with the 2015 First principles review. An ASPI Strategic Insights paper, with 10 contributors, called the report ‘the most significant review of the defence establishment since the 1973 re-organisation led by Sir Arthur Tange’.

The review recommended a radical streamlining of decision-making, cutting senior management roles, slashing the number of committees, and abolishing the Defence Materiel Organisation to subsume the semi-autonomous organisation into Defence’s central structure.

Allan Behm wrote that the review highlighted critical organisational imperatives: simplify processes to emphasise decision-making as the core function of the Defence leadership; rebalance accountability and responsibility by cutting the number of committees; get internal alignment right—‘a problem that has frustrated chiefs of the defence force and secretaries for the past two decades’; acknowledge that behavioural change drive cultural change—‘an issue on which gender considerations have a direct impact’; recognise the fundamental need for trust between the defence minister and the defence organisation—‘the ever-changing procession of secretaries has generated a civilian organisation that lacks capacity, cohesion and consistency’.

Paddy Gourley harrumphed that beneath a welter of cliché and bamboozling modern management mumbo jumbo in the review, much sound advice lurked.

To the question posed by the review of why Defence had been unable to change itself, Gourley answered that ‘reform’ had been largely outsourced to dozens of reviews, which confused and distracted managers. Too many people at senior levels with narrow divisions of responsibility and the associated need to consult had coagulated management and restricted action.

Reform had to be pushed by leaders at the top, Gourley wrote, and that led to the defence ministers: ‘Few have taken a strong interest in the proper workings of the organisation. Indeed, a number have succumbed to the insidious notion that they are “customers” of Defence. They aren’t, but when they pretend to be, management stasis is usually just around the corner.’

Michael Clifford wrote that Defence, like all large organisations, needed a good pruning from time to time, and the last one was in 1997 with the Defence efficiency review.

Clifford, too, argued that government and ministers were not blameless. The growth in top-line staff numbers had all been agreed by government to meet operational needs, or in response to previous reviews ordered by government:

Successful reform is led and driven by the Minister—not just through media conferences and press releases. Defence is at its best when the Minister of the day regularly engages with the Department and mutual respect can be developed. While they may prefer to, Defence Ministers can’t stand back and point fingers—they need to get their hands dirty. Even if this may result occasionally in some political mud sticking.