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Defence review won’t succeed unless sacred cows are put up for slaughter

Posted By on August 19, 2022 @ 15:00

In his latest ASPI Strategic Insight paper, Michael Shoebridge identifies the key challenges [1] Australia’s defence strategic review faces. The terms of reference for the review [2] say that its purpose is ‘to consider the priority of investment in Defence capabilities and assess the Australian Defence Force’s structure, posture and preparedness in order to optimise Defence capability and posture to meet the nation’s security challenges over the period 2023–24 to 2032–33 and beyond’. The deadline for the review’s independent leads to submit their recommendations is March next year.

Given the review’s huge scope and the short time available, using the same process as for past defence reviews is unlikely to turn out well. A flawed process is the reason reviews keep leading to a future force that looks just like the old one on steroids.

The commentariat is already offering competing visions of what the future force should look like, so which one is right? Well, all of them. All you need to do is adjust key inputs to the process until it spits out the answer you want—job done. The three services are good at it.

So, what is the process? Basically, the Defence Department’s ‘strategic centre’ [3] sets out strategic-level problems in considerable detail. The force design division [4] and the single services conduct wargames and experiments to work out what they need to solve them. (I’ll use the terms ‘wargames’ and ‘experiments’ interchangeably since they overlap.)

The process is logical but, no matter what the strategic problem, it kept producing a future force that looked just like the one it was replacing, except bigger, heavier and with more bling. So, what went wrong?

Each service is free to address a strategic problem with whatever operational and tactical-level solutions it sees fit. Humans are most comfortable in their comfort zone, so they invariably want to fight the fights they know and love using the doctrine and toolsets they grew up with. Almost inevitably, this leads to finding they need the same as before plus some more.

Alternatively, it can be done back to front. Start with an agenda for same-plus, then reverse-engineer the fight to get you there. If you want 45-tonne infantry fighting vehicles, you design the tactical fight so you need 45-tonne infantry fighting vehicles to win it (that’s for the army; remove IFVs and insert relevant sacred cows for the navy and air force).

Another problem is that the three service’s favourite fights are different to each other and largely incompatible, having historically evolved to plug in to three different US services. In Australian single-service experiments, each service can turn a blind eye to the other services’ incompatibility with its own ambitions. In many cases, that makes the chosen fight untenable, or at least dependent on heroic assumptions.

The recommendations that emerge from these wargames are predicated on the immutability of the chosen concept of operations. If, for example, a wargame reveals that a service’s plan to address a problem isn’t feasible, the solution will always be adding more of whatever there wasn’t enough of rather than finding a less profligate way of tackling the problem. This is the genesis of the ‘magic pudding’ problem Shoebridge describes.

The solution often requires heroic schedule assumptions in order for it to be relevant to current strategic imperatives. A timelier fix will never trump a shinier one. That mindset is a hangover from the longstanding, but now abandoned, assumption that we’d have a decade of warning time to prepare for a conflict. We have admitted we don’t have that time, but we can’t shake the habit.

The big problem with this process is that there’s no objective mechanism for prioritising the different services’ ‘solutions’. That would require a common position on how the ADF will fight at defined future time points. In the past, Defence has produced ‘military strategies’ and ‘concepts’ purporting to do this, but none had the necessary specificity for prioritising or falsifying competing claims, or any other practical use for that matter.

It is unlikely that all of this can be fixed in the time available, so what can be done?

A quick and expedient mitigation might be to try to keep the various stakeholders honest by providing direct contestability support to the review’s two leads, former defence minister Stephen Smith and former ADF chief Angus Houston. In the current process, Defence’s contestability division only gets a voice downstream of the important decisions. It is structured accordingly, so in order to contest things upstream, where it matters, it would need augmentation. Uniformed contestability staff are not in a good position to challenge their own service’s institutional aspirations, so it may be necessary to bring in suitable external or retired working-level subject-matter experts.

It will be important for Smith and Houston to pin the department down on how it thinks Australia intends to fight, to listen to the contestation and to adjudicate. The outcome—a statement of the way we will fight—must have sufficient specificity to be enable prioritisation of competing claims. If the review does that, we should expect to see a few sacred cows heading for the abattoir to make space in the herd for vital new beasts. If not, we’ll again get more of the same.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/defence-review-wont-succeed-unless-sacred-cows-are-put-up-for-slaughter/

URLs in this post:

[1] identifies the key challenges: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/marles-defence-strategic-review

[2] review: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/reviews-inquiries/defence-strategic-review

[3] Defence Department’s ‘strategic centre’: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/strategy-policy-industry-group/strategic-policy-division

[4] force design division: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/organisation/australian-defence-force-headquarters

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