Contesting contestability
20 Apr 2015|

A MRH-90 Taipan helicopter, conducts a vertical replenishment during First of Class Trials, onboard HMAS Canberra.

Andrew Davies’ three First Principles Review (FPR) posts on contestability (here, here, and here) make interesting reading for anyone who has been on both sides of capability arguments. While I agree with most of what Andrew wrote, there are two assumptions of his I would like to contest.

The first is the assumption that only non-military issues are the subject of contestability (such as cost and schedule). In many cases uncontested ‘professional opinion’ is the root of the evil, even when the mechanics of capability projects are well executed. The ‘Service Position’ often becomes synonymous with the professional military opinion, but in reality, it’s no more than the opinion that happened to prevail in the intra-tribal (read: service) debate. It’s sometimes based on individual or group prejudices and seniority. Once the service chief has formed an opinion, the organisation swings into uncontested decision-based evidence-making rather than evidence-based decision-making.

The second assumption is that the government’s own guidance is a suitable foundation for contesting force structure wishes. In practice, however, it’s all too easy to link a favourite capability to strategic policy by means of a reverse-engineered concept of operations or employment. All the armed services do this and each is free to fight a different war to the other two. It would not be difficult to fill an entire page with examples of the inter-service disconnections. Air Force puts little priority on sustained air defence of surface forces at the distances at which they expect to operate. It has little real expeditionary capability, unless operating from a pre-established base in friendly territory counts as expeditionary. Navy puts little priority on supplying fuel to forces ashore, but they could argue that neither of the other Services has much ability to receive serious quantities of it anyway. Army is getting steadily heavier with little regard for whether the other two services will be able to support its increased logistic demands and even less regard for its suitability for amphibious operations from the helicopter-centric LHDs. Perhaps contestability could usefully be extended downstream from strategic guidance to the operational concepts stage.

As Andrew Davies and others have pointed out, the Force Development and Analysis (FDA) office once served this contestability function, but was eliminated in 1997. So, can a new FDA-like entity challenge professional military opinion and try to impose some contextual discipline on concepts of operations? This is, after all, exactly what the FPR recommends. There is good reason to believe that it will fail, even if the new office under Deputy Secretary Defence Policy is given an allocation of suitably experienced military professionals. Ultimately any organisation comprising active service personnel is susceptible to pressure from the Services. The service owns their people, rates their performance and manages their promotions. Contributing to the defeat of the argument for a favoured capability or specific procurement is hardly likely to be career-enhancing. To a lesser extent, any organisation internal to Defence is susceptible to pressure to toe the corporate line—civilian or uniformed.

There is no easy solution, but an external body, including former Defence civilians—such as Andrew—and former military personnel would seem to be the most viable option. Arrangements for access to information would require careful consideration of course, but that isn’t insurmountable. There are various potential places for it to reside, even ASPI.

It would also strengthen many proposals by testing them and providing a measure of priority and proportionality relative to other capabilities competing for the finite resources available.

The report notes that Defence has been adept at ‘gaming’ the system and a purely internal contestability process is an open invitation to do exactly that. While an independent contestability body is a step beyond the recommendations, without it, the FPR could ultimately turn out to be just ‘another review’.