Australia must rein in the defence bureaucracy to achieve its strategic goals

After 40 years of reform experimentation that has seriously weakened the Australian Defence Force, it’s time for the government to bring the defence bureaucracy back onto the rails.

Australians are becoming increasingly anxious about Australia’s strategic circumstances as they’re told we won’t have much warning of an armed conflict in our region. To address this, Defence says it wants to be able to hold an adversary’s forces at risk further away from our shores. This strategy necessarily emphasises sea and air capabilities, as recently acknowledged by former Australian Army chief Peter Leahy. If there was ever a need for bold, decisive government action, it is now.

The public version of the 2023 defence strategic review didn’t sufficiently acknowledge the maritime emphasis of its approach. It should have addressed the changes that would be required in the integrated investment program across the services to build a maritime-focused force. The acquisitions announced around the time the review was released, none of them actually new, didn’t address the urgent need for new maritime combat hardware. There has been only more delay since.

There are two major impediments to equipping the Australian Defence Force to execute the new strategy. The first is a lack of urgency. The change required must come at a pace that Defence seems incapable of generating. The second is the scale of the enterprise. Enormous investment will be required to quickly replace our worn-out naval combat capabilities and significantly expand our maritime airpower. This will require people as well as new money and it must happen well before our nuclear submarines arrive. Yet not only is the investment not forthcoming, quite the opposite is happening. Sustainment budgets have been cut severely this year, which will impact ADF preparedness.

Changing the combat force structure has been an alien concept in Defence since it was brought into a single department in 1973. Under an initiative of the powerful mandarin Arthur Tange, the individual ministries for each of the three services, in place since 1939, were unified under one minister with a few deputies and parliamentary secretaries. This followed similar moves in the US and UK designed to reduce inter-service rivalry and promote efficiency. Australia achieved neither outcome.

Problems with Tange’s model were accurately foretold. Defence analysts warned that the abolition of ‘the direct Minister to Service Chief (and vice versa)’ and the ‘strategic, financial and moral accountability (and mutual knowledge) this entailed’ would result in a ‘giant step’ along the road to public service—as opposed to parliamentary—control of the armed forces. That’s exactly what happened. One reason for this was that it became almost impossible for a single minister to master the complexities of such a large and challenging portfolio, even with the help of a junior minister or two.

In trying to eliminate rivalry, Tange’s changes also reduced the possibility for a real contest of ideas about how to address any strategic objective. In a system where the chief of the defence force was required to represent all three services impartially and the minister was unlikely to be in a position to challenge military leaders on details, in practical terms any substantial change in the force structure became impossible.

This contention is supported by a letter from Paul Dibb to Defence Minister Kim Beazley covering Dibb’s 1986 review of defence capabilities: ‘The Review could obtain no material centrally endorsed by the higher Defence structure which explained, for example, the strategic rationale for a 12-destroyer Navy, three fighter squadrons, six Regular Army battalions … Most [documents] focus on justifying the present force structure rather than estimating what our strategic circumstances require.’ While Australia and the region have changed enormously since then, our combat force remains essentially the same.

Even if major changes were agreed, Defence too often opted for ill-advised, unnecessarily complex and risky hardware that was beyond its competence to manage. Poor performance in managing the timely and cost-effective acquisition of new capability has required Defence to keep obsolescent equipment in service far beyond the end of its practical life, weakening the ADF overall.

Australia’s sclerotic performance in acquiring major military hardware this century has produced some dismal outcomes and wasted vast amounts of money. Among the likely causes are the burdens of bureaucracy and process for its own sake, and the emergence of an empire of ill-equipped and poorly advised senior decision-makers. This has been accompanied by the minimisation of the service chiefs’ authority, outsourcing of technical services, centralisation of scientific support and abolition of in-house academic research capabilities.

Late last century, Defence’s commercial support and strategic reform programs, followed in 2014 by the first principles review, continued to worsen the impact of the Tange-era changes. Many specialised, dedicated domain-specific functions on which the services depended for their effectiveness were either outsourced or centralised in a complex shared-services matrix organisation. In common with other departments, some elements of the Defence matrix became heavily reliant on contracted labour and consultants. The ADF’s effectiveness has been seriously damaged as a result.

ADF technical staff were stripped of functions that were then largely contracted to the private sector, which has been unable to sustain delivery reliably, effectively or efficiently. So, too, with the scientists, laboratories and academic researchers. Without these vital, specialised resources in-house, service acquisitions have been persistently characterised by costly and avoidable problems.

The 2014 review marginalised the service chiefs further by removing their right of access to the minister. This was based on, at best, contestable logic. Most recently, the 2023 DSR centralised away from the service chiefs true authority over their people, one of the few remaining vestiges of formal control they had. The service chiefs are now little more than staff officers to the chief of the defence force and are removed from being, in any sense, commanders of the specialised institutions of state over which they preside.

Where once they outranked all military officers except the chief and vice chief of the defence force, with whom they were equal, today the service chiefs must compete for resources—including their own people—with seven military officers and nine public servants of equivalent rank. Holding anyone accountable is impossible, while advice to ministers is filtered, struggled over, tightly controlled and frequently avoids the whole story.

Much of the extensive organisational change since the late 1980s has pursued ‘efficiency’ (read: cost-cutting), which is a non sequitur. The DSR uses the same language. The evidence shows, however, that very few efficiency gains have been achieved. Defence is costly, and while financial efficiency is rightly demanded, no evidence has been presented to show that much inefficiency ever existed at all. Labyrinthine bureaucratic processes are hardly efficient, yet they proliferate unchecked. Today’s ineffectiveness is a far worse outcome than effectiveness with a bit of inefficiency—that bit of fat that provides the resilience so very valuable in a small force like the ADF.

Resolving profound differences of view about strategy and acquisitions within the bureaucracy, rather than around the cabinet table, has been a failure. While coordination and harmonisation are certainly required across ADF endeavours, as professional heads of their services the service chiefs should be authorised, responsible and accountable for all matters concerning them, from military strategy to the full range of operational and tactical elements of equipping, employing and sustaining it.

The top end of the ADF has both ballooned in numbers and been professionally dumbed down as a result. The government certainly seems to think so. Why else would it have asked a retired US Navy admiral to tell Australia what surface combatants our own navy should operate?

That the defence minister position has become a revolving door hasn’t helped. Ministers have averaged fewer than two years in the role in the past 30 years, and the chances of a government gripping Defence properly have become remote. Even as governments have flailed around looking for independent advice, too often from overseas, effective control has been held in the hands of Defence officials rather than ministers, as should be the case under Australia’s Westminster system of government.

Appointing an individual minister for each service and restoring the authority of the service chiefs would help address these systemic problems. The explosion of senior ADF positions must also be critically examined. The services don’t have the capacity to supply the suitably experienced and competent decision-makers required to meet current demand. Crucial in-service technical and scientific resources must be restored to help the individual services function better.

The Albanese government got off to a good start. It described eloquently the threat to our national security and designed an appropriate strategy to address it. But it must now move decisively to provide the military with the teeth it needs to implement the strategy. It’s time the rubber hit the road. Urgently.